Sunday, July 24, 2016

Spark & Whisper


Some friends understand, but still others are surprised that our tastes in music are rather eclectic, and everything we listen to isn't as intense and extreme as last Friday night's Swans show.  Other nights, however, you can put a cold one in our hands and play us some songs about a ramblin' man, as Hank Jr. once sang, 'cause you know we love to hear those guitar sounds.  In addition to post-rock, our tastes also include country, western swing, bluegrass, and folk, and we're basically pushovers for good folk rock.  Basically, we like anything that's done well (and dislike anything that's not).

Fairfax, California's Spark & Whisper play folk rock and they play it very, very well.  Their music leans more toward the folk end of the folk-rock spectrum, with tasty flourishes of bluegrass and even a little occasional honky-tonk, but that doesn't mean their music is sparse or austere by any means. As a matter of fact, they play satisfying, full-bodied folk-rock anthems, mini-masterpieces centered around the warm harmonies of Anita Sandwina and Velvy Appleton.

Their new album, Monument, won't be released until November 15 (presale starts August 15), but Appleton was kind enough to provide me with a preview (one of the few perks of music blogging).  It immediately sounds exactly like a Spark & Whisper album (it's their third) as there's no mistaking the vocals of the two songwriters, Anita and Velvy.  But they've given their instruments a little more room than on past records, pushing the sound just ever so slightly more toward the rock end of the folk-rock spectrum.  This makes for one of the most satisfying and interesting of Spark & Whisper's three fine releases, and there's a lot of interesting touches - for example, the bowed cello intro on Far From This World and some funky banjo and mandolin backing on Bottom of the Well - that you might not even catch on first listen and makes repeated listens so satisfying. Listen to the tender, intimate interplay of guitar and cymbals that opens I Am Yours, followed by Anita's yearning, soulful vocals, and you're hooked for the duration of the song, even before the "I am, I am" hook kicks in and the guitar-and-cymbal motif repeats at the bridge.

The eleven cuts that make up Monument alternate between Sandwina compositions (and lead vocals) and those of Appleton, but both voices (they harmonize so well) can be heard on every track.  I hear something new to love on every listen to Monument.  The penultimate track, California, is my personal favorite, a downright foot-stomping anthem and pure ear-candy that will have you singing the words hours after hearing the song.  The California Department of Tourism is out of their minds if they don't buy the rights to Velvy wailing "CALLIE-fornia" for future state-wide promotions.  It's a better advertisement for the charms of the state than even Best Coast's The Only Place, and also provides a nice setting for some tasty guitar and pedal steel solos. After the rousing California, the album closes on a gentler note with Anita's pensive Bless This Mountain, letting the listener catch their breath and sending them off with a warm glow not unlike that of a glass or two of Marin County cabernet.

You can listen to Spark & Whispers' previous recordings on their Bandcamp page, including their self-titled debut (2011) and sophomore effort Ghost Towns (2013), as well as The Circle (2014), the first single from Monument and a harbinger of the more sophisticated songwriting that makes the album Spark & Whisper's potential breakout LP.



Spark & Whisper may not be that well known beyond their native Northern California just yet, but a couple years ago, I burned a copy of Ghost Towns to CD to play in my car, and it's been in heavy rotation therein ever since.  People often ask me who that is playing in my car, but after Monument is released, with a few lucky breaks and the right promotion (hopefully starting right here with this review), people won't be asking anymore.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Swans at Terminal West, Atlanta, July 22, 2016


At least a couple of times in life, one ought to experience some extreme or another of human experience: childbirth, summiting a difficult mountain, extended sensory deprivation or deep meditation, completing an ultra-marathon, and other such activities.  I would add to that list my experience last night at the front of the stage for a live Swans' show.

Only slightly less intense was the opener, avant-garde cellist Okkyung Lee.


Lee's approach to the cello is more visceral than compositional - she's seemingly more interested in exploring the range of sounds she can produce from the instrument than sticking to something that can be written down in musical notation.  Her fingers slide rapidly down the strings producing sounds like ambulance sirens, and she holds the strings down at the very end to produce other effects that sound like bird songs. She plays with a furious intensity that, while certainly not anything one could call "rock" music or any of it's subgenres, would appeal to certain fans of thrash, metal, or extreme post-rock - in other words, Swans' fans.


It was a refreshing and bracing warm-up act.  Coincidentally, the last time we were at Terminal West, exactly one month ago - in fact the last show to which we've been - the opener was also a soloist on an instrument not traditionally the whole of a set, the drummer Majeure, opening for Black Mountain. Like Majeure, but also unlike him in so many other ways, Lee galvanized the audience and opened our minds for what was to follow.   


Swans came on stage at 9:30 sharp.  We got to Terminal West a little after 7:30 and were able to get a spot right up front at the center of the stage, arguably the spot spot in the house, and there wasn't even the usual security barrier separating the audience from the stage.  We watched the entire show maybe two feet away from Lee and Swans' frontman Michael Gira.


Sadly, percussionist extraordinaire Thor Harris is not touring with Swans, although his playing is a prominent part of the new Glowing Man LP, as he is now pursuing his own, solo project (which comes to Eddies' Attic, of all places, October 15).  However, the band was augmented by keyboardist Paul Oakenfish, who backed opener Little Annie when Swans played Terminal West last year.

Swans opened with a new, or at least unrecorded (as far as I know) song, followed by Screen Shot from To Be Kind.  After these two openers, which by the way, lasted a combined 45 minutes, the band launched into The Glowing Man with the first two tracks from the new LP, Cloud of Forgetting and Cloud of Unknowing.  Those two songs took us to about 11:00 pm, when Gira had the other musicians clear the stage and brought out a special guest musician, former long-time Swans member Jarboe.


Jarboe joined the band in 1985 and was the most prominent member of the band beside Gira.  She was in the band, despite many other roster changes, until Swans initially disbanded in 1997.  There were many reports of bad blood and a falling out between Gira and Jarboe, but apparently nothing that 19 years couldn't heal.  It was also significant that Jarboe, an Atlanta native, chose to support her friend Gira, whose reputation has been tainted by rape allegations brought by singer Larkin Grimm. Addressing those allegations, Jarboe told Creative Loafing
"When I first got wind of all of that, my support was very clear. On my Facebook page — for me, pictures speak louder than words — I posted a photograph of him with his arms around me, and the two of us embracing each other when we were younger. That was my statement about the incident. My fans on that page got it. They understood what that meant. I wouldn’t have posted that if I had any remote belief in those accusations. You’re talking about a major mentor for me, and a great love of my life, and I will always support him in that way."    
Photo posted to Facebook by show promoter Alex Weiss
As expected, Jarboe performed only one song, Blood On Your Hands, nearly a cappella, with only a droning background provided by lap steel guitarist Christoph Hahn.  It was mesmerizing and, as you can see in the picture above, held the audience spell-bound for the entire performance (for the record, I really was front and center for the show; that girl in the hat stepped right in front of me when Jarboe took the stage, but after the picture was taken, I later got back to the edge of the stage between her and the dude in the white shirt). She looked and sounded great, and although Gira's announced that this tour is the last by this incarnation of Swans, her appearance and the obvious warmth between her and Gira on stage support our hopes that she might be included in the next version of Swans, whatever that might be. 

The best received record of Swans during the Jarboe era was arguably Soundtracks For the Blind, and Jarboe is often criticized in some circles for the live performance of the controversial song Yum Yab Killers on that record.  The song is intentionally abrasive and confrontational (hey, this is Swans we're talking about), but I think the studio version of the song on Jarboe's solo Sacrificial Cake (1995) LP is the better version.


But anyway, although historic, Jarboe's reunion with the band after almost 20 years was less than 10 minutes of a 2 1/2-hour show.  After Blood On Your Hands, Jarboe left the stage and Swans launched into the title track of The Glowing Man, slightly shorter than the live version in the video below.  Last night's performance started in at about the 11:00-minute mark of the video version, which is more faithful to the recorded, studio version.


So about those "extremes of human experience":  the entire set was intense and emotional and unrelentingly loud - I didn't regret wearing earplugs at all, and my ears were still ringing anyway after the show was over.  Swans have developed a fearsome reputation, founded mostly on their earliest, per-Jarboe years, of playing at painfully loud volumes during concerts, sometimes leading to police stopping shows.  Legend famously has it their music was loud enough to "induce vomiting in members of the audience." Gira was also notably confrontational with the audience, stepping on people's fingers resting on the stage, pulling people's hair and, notably, physically assaulting anyone caught in the crowd headbanging, something he detested.  He has mellowed over the years, and the only negative interaction he had with the audience was stopping one person from video-taping the set, and that was just by finger-wagging and shaking his head "no."




Some of the drones went on a little too long, in my humble opinion, but when the band got going, like in the "Joseph" portion of The Glowing Man, the band was an unstoppable juggernaut.  It was exhilarating, it was exhausting, and for all the doom and gloom, it was strangely uplifting.  The likes of this particular line-up of Swans is not likely to be seen again any time soon, and I'm grateful that I've had the opportunity to experience them twice, and to witness Jarboe's reunion with her old band.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tonight


Swans are touring the country in the final performances by the current lineup of the band, and they have announced that they’ll be joined by their former vocalist/keyboardist/arranger/writer Jarboe for one night only at their concert in Atlanta tonight (July 22). She’ll be performing Blood On Your Hands from the Children of God album, although it may be tempting to get her to perform When Will I Return? from Swans' current The Glowing Man LP, too.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Nova'Billy


Henry Flynt was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1940. He is both an exhibited artist and an anti-art activist as well as a philosopher-musician.  His work is often associated with conceptual art, nihilism, and Fluxus. 

Flynt’s work devolves from what he calls cognitive nihilism, a concept he developed and first announced in the 1960 and 1961 drafts of a paper called Philosophy Proper. The 1961 draft was published in Milan with other early work in his book Blueprint for a Higher Civilization.  Flynt refined these dispensations in the essay Is There Language? that was published as Primary Study in 1964.

In 1961, Flynt coined the term "concept art" in the neo-dada, proto-Fluxus book An Anthology of Chance Operations (co-published with La Monte Young). Concept art, Flynt maintained, devolved from cognitive nihilism, from insights about the vulnerabilities of logic and mathematics. Drawing on an exclusively syntactical paradigm of logic and mathematics, concept art was meant to supersede both mathematics and the formalistic music then current in serious art music circles. Therefore, Flynt held, to merit the label "concept art," a work had to be an object-critique of logic or mathematics or objective structure.

Because of his friendship and collaboration with La Monte Young, Flynt sometimes gets linked to Fluxus. While Flynt himself describes Fluxus as his "publisher of last resort" (Flynt did permit Fluxus to publish his work, and took part in several Fluxus exhibitions), he claims no affiliation or interest in the Fluxus sensibility.  In fact, he is a strong critic of the neo-Dada sensibility.

In 1962, Flynt began an anti-art campaign.  He demonstrated against cultural institutions in New York City (such as MoMA and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) in 1963 and against the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen twice in 1964.  Flynt wanted avant-garde art to become superseded by the terms of "veramusement" and "brend" - neologisms meaning pure recreation. 

Flynt is also known for his musical work that attempts to fuse avant-garde music (particularly the hypnotic aspects of minimalism) with free jazz, country blues, rock, and hillbilly music.  

Raga Electric: Experimental Music 1963-1971 is an anthology of Flynt's most challenging avant-garde work that includes Raga Electric (1966) and Free Alto (1964).  In 1966, Flynt recorded several demo tapes with The Insurrections, a folk-rock garage band, which were later compiled and released as I Don't Wanna in 2004.

His first CD release was You Are My Everlovin'/Celestial Power, initiating the "New American Ethnic Music" or NAEM series, quickly followed by Spindizzy (NAEM Volume 2) and Hillbilly Tape Music (NAEM Volume 3). Flynt's vision of rural roots music combined with American minimalism is further showcased in Blue Sky, Highway and Thyme from Back Porch Hillbilly Blues, Volume 1, and Informal Hillbilly Jive from Back Porch Hillbilly Blues, Volume 2

Henry Flynt & Nova'Billy (above) collects material recorded between 1974 and 1975 by his rock band Nova'Billy. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Economics 102


Faced with fewer bands touring through the American South, club owners appear to have re-evaluated their own profit margins and the sources of their income.  Why pay some band from New York a big fee to perform, when a local band can fill the room or at the very least cover the costs for the night at little or no money?  

Local music is an important part of any city's music scene and part of the joy of living in a city with a thriving local music scene like Atlanta is watching our local favorites grow and mature as artists.  But when the club owners no longer can pack the room with fans of the latest buzz band, they have to figure out how they can afford to keep the doors open with fewer customers, so with lower volume, they have to reduce their costs by paying the locals less and less, and before too long the music fan is faced with enduring whatever band the club can scrape together to play for free that night and with putting up with fewer and fewer comforts (AC, clean toilets) in the club itself.

In a perfect world, our fine local bands would rise to the occasion and fill the empty stages left by the touring bands that refuse to venture too far from home, but in the imperfect world in which we live, there's a downward spiral as owners realize they can make greater profits by paying the bands less, or even nothing at all, and the quality of the music on stage suffers as a result.

So, yes, I've been to fewer shows this year, partly because there's been fewer shows this year, in my humble opinion, worth seeing.

But then, suddenly, an oasis appears in the desert.  Over the next week, Atlanta will get to experience Swans (Friday), Fear of Men (Monday), Marissa Nadler (Tuesday), and Boogarins (Wednesday), and then almost nothing for the month of August.  But then, just as dramatically, we'll get another overload of shows on September 8, 9, 10, and 11, with  Car Seat Headrest, (8th), Angel Olsen (9th), Quilt and Mutual Benefit (10th), and Joanna Newsom (11th).  

So don't lose hope, Atlanta, there's still good music to be heard out there, and in the meantime we can support our local artists like Little Tybee at Terminal West on August 5, Takenobu at Eddie's Attic on August 13, and Hello Ocho and Jeffrey Bützer at The Earl on August 29 and September 3, respectively.    

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Blue Sky, Highway and Thyme (Back Porch Hillbilly Blues, Volume 1)


Henry Flynt was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1940. He is both an exhibited artist and an anti-art activist as well as a philosopher-musician.  His work is often associated with conceptual art, nihilism, and Fluxus. 

Flynt’s work devolves from what he calls cognitive nihilism, a concept he developed and first announced in the 1960 and 1961 drafts of a paper called Philosophy Proper. The 1961 draft was published in Milan with other early work in his book Blueprint for a Higher Civilization.  Flynt refined these dispensations in the essay Is There Language? that was published as Primary Study in 1964.

In 1961, Flynt coined the term "concept art" in the neo-dada, proto-Fluxus book An Anthology of Chance Operations (co-published with La Monte Young). Concept art, Flynt maintained, devolved from cognitive nihilism, from insights about the vulnerabilities of logic and mathematics. Drawing on an exclusively syntactical paradigm of logic and mathematics, concept art was meant to supersede both mathematics and the formalistic music then current in serious art music circles. Therefore, Flynt held, to merit the label "concept art," a work had to be an object-critique of logic or mathematics or objective structure.

Because of his friendship and collaboration with La Monte Young, Flynt sometimes gets linked to Fluxus. While Flynt himself describes Fluxus as his "publisher of last resort" (Flynt did permit Fluxus to publish his work, and took part in several Fluxus exhibitions), he claims no affiliation or interest in the Fluxus sensibility.  In fact, he is a strong critic of the neo-Dada sensibility.

In 1962, Flynt began an anti-art campaign.  He demonstrated against cultural institutions in New York City (such as MoMA and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) in 1963 and against the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen twice in 1964.  Flynt wanted avant-garde art to become superseded by the terms of "veramusement" and "brend" - neologisms meaning pure recreation. 

Flynt is also known for his musical work that attempts to fuse avant-garde music (particularly the hypnotic aspects of minimalism) with free jazz, country blues, rock, and hillbilly music.  

Raga Electric: Experimental Music 1963-1971 is an anthology of Flynt's most challenging avant-garde work that includes Raga Electric (1966) and Free Alto (1964).  In 1966, Flynt recorded several demo tapes with The Insurrections, a folk-rock garage band, which were later compiled and released as I Don't Wanna in 2004.

His first CD release was You Are My Everlovin'/Celestial Power, initiating the "New American Ethnic Music" or NAEM series, quickly followed by Spindizzy (NAEM Volume 2) and Hillbilly Tape Music (NAEM Volume 3). Flynt's vision of rural roots music combined with American minimalism is further showcased in Blue Sky, Highway and Thyme (above) from Back Porch Hillbilly Blues, Volume 1.

Reviewing the album on AllMusic.com, Eugene Chadbourne writes:
In any discussion about Henry Flynt, the following point should inevitably be made. In avant-garde music, creating something new from a kernel off the ear of some traditional musical corn is a traditional act in itself -- popular, self-evident, and inevitably clichéd in just about any musical era. The work of Flynt is a rare example of music extrapolated from a folk music source that manages to become folk music itself, at least in the performances where something didn't go wrong with the experiment. The latter type of artistic grimace is also part of the series of faces made by a fascinating Flynt in the era before he gave up music completely, but are strictly in the minority on this excellent collection. 
Since the late '90s, several record labels have been releasing the complete body of material Flynt documented in a period roughly spanning the late '60s to early '80s. All of the releases are worthwhile, all could serve as an introduction as well as a main course, but the ease with which a set entitled "volume one" could be remembered as a starting point is both helpful and appropriate. Of the four pieces in this program, half are just plain brilliant examples of this artist's work, while the others contain a mixture of the well-done with what a native North Carolinian might describe as "could'nuh-should'nuh." It isn't that Flynt can't sing; on the contrary, when he gets it together on Blue Sky, Highway and Thyme it's because he gets into chanting rather than trying to sound like some guy that would sell you a tire on the Salisbury bypass.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Economics 101


A couple of weeks ago - although to be honest, it might have been a couple months ago by now - my friend L. noted how few good shows there seems to be in Atlanta lately.

The remark gave me reason to think.  It does seem like I've been to far fewer shows so far this year than I had by the same time last year.  Sure, some of it may have been due to me just not getting out as much, but some of it is also that it seems like there have been far fewer good shows to go out to this year.

Now why is that?, I wonder.  It seems that there are no fewer shows at The Earl, The Masquerade, Smith's Olde Bar, and all the other stages in Atlanta, so it's not that there's fewer shows.  So some of it is probably due to my own musical taste, which is not always consistent with current musical fashions.  To be sure, the indie rock renaissance of the 2000s is now over, and more and more, the clubs are booking EDM and hip-hop acts, which are not my own personal preference.  Nothing against it, but it's just that it was the creativity and artistry of the indie rock renaissance that got this old man back into the clubs again.  But while some clubs are now booking more and more EDM and hip-hop, other clubs are going in another direction, and booking more hardcore punk, more metal, and more scruffy garage bands, and while the overlap of my tastes and the latter group is larger than the overlap with the first group, it's less compelling to me to go out to a club just to be sonically assaulted by a three-chord band.

So the music's changing, and I'm getting even older still.  That's the way of the world, I guess.  But it seems like there's more to it than just that - after all, there still are a lot of new records coming out that I enjoy, but those bands don't seem to be playing here in Atlanta.

Now what's the reason for that?, I wonder, and decide that it's the economics of the music industry. As everyone knows, these days, most bands make most of their money not by album sales as in the past, but by touring, one night at a time, one show at a time, one cover charge at a time.   The tour has become the most important source of income, and therefore, gets planned the most carefully.  

For a band coming out of one of either of the two poles of the new music axis, that is, Brooklyn or Portland/Seattle, there's a lot of logistics and economics that go into planning a tour.  You can knock off a lot of gigs within a few hours drive from each other in the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor if you're Brooklyn based, or in the Seattle-Portland-Sacramento-San Francisco corridor if you're on the West Coast.  But to play the American South means fewer clubs that are further apart with 8 to 10 hour drives in between, and smaller clubs with lower cover charges, so it winds up costing you more in terms of gas, food, and lodging to make less money.  

It's more economical to run a smaller circuit within 12 hours of home at large clubs where the patrons don't mind paying $40 to get in than it is to drive 12 hours from gig to gig to play for a handful of fans who've only paid $5 at the door.

I don't know if any of this is fact - I'm not in the music business, but it makes sense to me.  If I was a NY band, I wouldn't drive across the South to make a fraction of what I could make between Montreal and Baltimore.

So, the shows have been fewer, but I've really enjoyed what I have managed to see down here so far, ranging from Julien Baker at Aisle 5 to Animal Collective at Buckhead Theater to Quilt at The Earl. But there have been long stretches of time between and since those gigs that have felt like a musical desert to me.

And now an oasis is in sight.  This Friday night, four days from now (four!), Swans return to Terminal West touring behind their great new album The Glowing Man.
  

And then the next week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we'll be graced with Fear of Men at The Masquerade, Marissa Nadler at The Earl, and Boogarins also at The Earl, in that order. Four great shows in six nights, and there hasn't been four good show in the previous six weeks, or even two months, so let's enjoy it while we've got it, my friends.