Intense, surreal, remote, dynamic. Come along with us as we chronicle the adventures of the soul through psychedelic, drone, noise, experimental, pop music based around Chicago bands in particular and local bands everywhere.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Experiencing Vinyl #2

There's this amazing story about Bertrand Russell's initial reaction to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Rumors circulating in print and philosophy departments for decades suggest that, upon completing Wittgenstein's groundbreaking philosophical work, Russell took his own current work on epistemology and logic and threw it in the trash. The story goes, with Wittgenstein effectively addressing a series of questions about language and knowing, and presenting an approach that simultaneously grabs logical and mystical methods, Russell closed up shop and promptly began work on political and ethical problems. The idea was, academic philosophy was some sort of progression of specific questions that could be addressed, and, presumably, answered; upon answering those questions, Wittgenstein's work closed doors for other philosophers. Russell's new work in ethical and political issues would find a world much more malleable and less concrete working area than the atmosphere for logical philosophy in the early 20th century.

This story has been running through my mind lately, as I think of different traditions and mixtures of sounds jumping through my speakers. What captures my mind is the extreme difference between music and philosophy as exercises of the soul -- whereas philosophy, in our culture, is addressed as a closed series of questions with objective entries that are considered through their manner of submission and then logically questioned and dissected through further literature, music engages traditions through unfolding, from the creative acts that result in artifacts that we consume and judge, to the spiritual energy and attitudes that invoke emotions, allow us to recall experiences, and exercise our memories. Music criticism often misses this mark -- there is an academic aspect of criticism whereby writers log each and every record, influence, or attitude that stands behind a release. In this regard, records are cut off at the level of artifacts, and our consumption of those records are turned into a type of intellectual criticism that finds each record literally as such: an entry, a record of sound, a development in a tradition.

Yet, experiencing psychedelic music following Can, The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine, etc., or any other genre you might think of, is not the same as working on philosophy after, say, The Critique of Pure Reason. We don't simply go to work at the university and track different entries of logical questions and criticisms of knowledge in journals and classrooms, or train minds according to these paradigms. No. We breathe it -- we crank it, we let it run through our bodies, we let our souls run wild through its repetitions. While it might be true to write things like, "Lorelle Meets the Obsolete captures the sensuality made possible in psychedelic music by The Raveonettes' version of Jesus and Mary Chain's repetitions," that does little to capture the breathtaking energy of their most recent release (or, any of the recording artists involved in that sentence). Music is much more than entries into catalogs of tradition and critical responses in journals; in this regard, our subjective experience must go beyond the basic understanding or logic of influences, past labels, scenes, etc. Philosophy of music is rather impossible; music criticism, then, is something else.


Over the years, Permanent Records Chicago / Los Angeles has done a particularly good job of unearthing original stock releases from old record labels or individual artists, and I was intrigued by one of those projects late last year. In town for a vacation (I think), I marched to Permanent and requested an original stock copy of End Result's Ward EP (Ruthless). Aside from the experience of gripping a completely new, unplayed piece of wax that's almost as old as me (I have yet to purchase "mint" records from the 1960s or 1970s. Maybe when I win the lottery or something), the music was a completely unexpected blur of distorted tirades and boisterous horns. I mistakenly expected a hardcore record, or some kind of really up-front noise or blistering punk; instead, I found bold creation, the type of boundless music that many cite but few actually allow. There's a certain threshold, I feel, even when people write about bands that go "beyond the limits" or "play without bounds." End Result demolish that threshold. I suppose some might just scratch their heads or call it crap, but then again, the horns, the unhinged vocals, it's all there for a reason. We are mistaken if we allow ourselves to believe that meaningful or purposeful music must be structured.

I became particularly interested in the EP thanks to an obsession with Ono's Albino (Moniker) LP -- their visionary rhythm and blues shone through the experimental elements of their sound, placing much more emphasis on sharp, visceral beats than most outsider music. Specifically, the prominence of the vocals suggested a certain "pop" feeling about the production of the affair -- if you allow yourself to focus too much on the noise and execution from the players, you'll forget that this is spiritual music; this is vocal music. Keeping the vocals up encouraged a shamanistic relationship between the leader, the band, and the listener. Call and response, a stomp, righteous, rather than vengeful, noise: it would be so easy to get lost on the surface here, but if you dig deep and allow your soul to be guided, you will find the urge to dance, you will find this amazing empathy. I been changed -- that's not a question between the players and the listener, that's a statement from experience. It is a subjective fact, rattling through your entire being.

Yet, this End Result record keeps coming back to me, and so does the Ono LP, as I finally experience Rojo by Obnox (Permanent). In Cleveland, we commuted via bike to work, nearly every single day -- summer or winter, rain or shine. What you need to know, when listening to albums by people from Cleveland, is that there are these grand infrastructures that rule the city. The city was built for many more people than currently inhabit the place. There is complete freedom in that, in a way, in that the city is there for your taking; and yet, on the other hand, there is broken glass, every damn day, in the bike lanes. Without fail, it doesn't matter how the weather is, there will be broken glass in your bike lane. Practically the only bike lanes in the city -- during the time we were there, anyway -- were on these gigantic bridges that took commuters from either the east or west side of the city, across the Cuyahoga River, across the industrial valley. The city was in layers, unfolding beneath the bridges, houses and bars in the Industrial flats, small neighborhoods sprawling all out from these grand infrastructures. There's a real Institutional Disconnect on the East Side of the city, too, where grand University buildings and Museum campuses are barricaded a boulevard away from vacant buildings, houses clearly excluded from the strengths of those institutions. Don't get me wrong, there are people working on some solutions to housing and development issues in Cleveland, but the point is, there is a lot more class division visible to the eye. It's not like Chicago where, for the most part, the grand centers of commerce and culture are generally removed from blight. In Cleveland, vacancy is everywhere, if only because the infrastructure is in a daily battle against the number of people that live there.

This spirit just runs through Bim Thomas's solo work, in that it's as real as glass shredding your tires in the bike lane, it's as strong as the greatest infrastructures of rock'n'roll, and it's as fucking free as all the blight and vacancy and beauty and violence and love that comes from living in the unsupervised shadows of grand infrastructure. There is not a shred of noise that is out of place on Rojo, and as Obnox, Thomas's percussion work takes his hardcore lessons from This Moment in Black History and Puffy Areolas and simply explodes it beyond the wildest outbursts of even those bands. Not unlike the Ono album, Obnox's work places rhythm and percussion at the forefront. THANK YOU, someone understands that this is rock'n'roll. At the end of the day, that's just how I feel about Ono, and that's how I feel about Obnox, too. These artists are producing unbelievably spiritual music that resonates with their locales, their eras, their legacies; it is tense like freedom fighting against coercion, it is optimistic like love against violence, and it is emancipatory like rhythm and creation against stasis.


At the turn of the new year in 2012, I rearranged my records in alphabetical order. Previously, I had one box of "pop" records, and one box of "other" records. This ensured that if I wanted a Lumerians record, I wouldn't mistakenly grab a Cyndi Lauper record (there's an argument somewhere that if you like 1980s music, Lauper made one of the pinnacle pop records, like, almost up there with Let's Dance by Bowie. And if you don't like Lauper or Bowie (or, more fairly, Let's Dance), that's fine -- more Cyndi Lauper records for me. I can't even claim that purchase, btw, someday I need to write an, "LPs my wife purchased that I didn't even know I liked." Sometimes great and unexpected music stands in your blindspots). Anyway, now all my albums are in order.

The honest truth is, I've been trying to find ways to put together words to review Jacco Gardner's Cabinet of Curiosities (Trouble In Mind). 2013 is the year of Chicago, first and foremost, where all those fine people making outsider music, producing outsider music, and releasing it, flex their muscle and show San Francisco that, really, we've got some crazy shit in our water out here, too. One of the best arguments in the Chicago vs. San Francisco argument in 2013 is simply the sheer output by Chicago-related labels. Trouble in Mind is one such label. Gardner's release is his debut, and the talented multi-instrumentalist produces largely key-driven pop songs that are complete fantasies. Not dreamlike or hypnogogic, like repetitive music, but fantastical in sheer production -- there's an unending brightness to the production, which is especially effective in displaying Gardner's extended chord progressions and minor-chord excursions.

Filing the record away is a fantastic reminder of how musicians can revisit strands of different traditions without being bound my logic, or they can revisit previously recording paradigms and perfect the assumptions that formed those paradigms. Specifically, I get to file Gardner's LP among Capitol psych monster reissues by Gandalf (s/t) and The Food (Forever is a Dream), as well as The Folk Implosion (Dare to be Surprised; Communion), and The Fresh & Onlys (this analogy stops at Echo & The Bunnymen and Bruce Haack. Sorry). Aside from asking whether bands with names filed under F and G make more interesting psych-pop records than bands with names under the other 24 letters, it strikes me that Gardner succeeds with assumptions that The Food and Gandalf didn't ever get to perfect (due to break-ups, marketing inefficiencies, shifting consumer attitudes, or something like that). Gardner records psychedelic music that is lush and orchestral, but it is not ever over-bearing. It maintains a lightness and sharp-attitude that the Capitol psych monsters don't always have (some of their symphonic studio arrangements are really interesting, but sometimes it's less rock and more heavy-handed or "psych for future ages" kitsch). On the other hand, Gardner uses extremely straightforward song structures, not unlike The Fresh & Onlys, but he seems to pack more into those structures, in terms of plot, storytelling, and chords. While The Fresh & Onlys make music that is more intense than Gardner's, Gardner captures a type of pop sensibility that is lurking beneath The Fresh & Onlys and realized on Cabinet of Curiosities. Of course, I could be making all this up because it's not immediately apparent while listening to either band that Gardner or Fresh & Onlys share a common thread; but, it's a fragment of a thought or feeling I got when filing records away. Hmmm...

One last trip on key-driven psych. In a completely different direction, Moonrises' Frozen Altars (Captcha  -- another "Year of Chicago 2013" breakout label) LP blasts dissonant, fuzzy dirges over in-the-box rhythms thanks to a swinging key and drums section. Unlike a lot of psych albums, the drums on this album sound like they're based around the snare much more frequently, than say tom-heavy build-ups or crazy fills. On Ben Baker's foundation, Libby Ramer's keys are omnipresent, presenting a strangely mellow vibe (I say strangely simply because the album ends up meandering to extremely intense and noisy places), a kind of steady coolness amidst the greatest storms. This key and drums foundation frequently offsets Plastic Crimewave's guitar attacks, which sound more intense and dissonant thanks to the execution of the rhythm and keys. Frankly, this is a sound where all players could have pummeled into oblivion, and given their individual talents, they could have made a good record doing that, too. But, the swinging rhythm offsets the squalls from the guitar, and when they all kick-in together, the moments are more intense because of their restraint in other places. Moonrises almost feels as jazz as it is psych, for its offsetting lead and rhythmic elements, as well as its moodiness.

Plastic Crimewave's guitar sound follows very similar timbres, in some places, as his tone on the Djin Aquarian & Plastic Crimewave Sound collaboration, Save The World  (Prophase). One of the striking features of his tone on Moonrises is that it is a direct fuzz sound, without the appearance of egregious effects mashing (not that there's anything wrong with stomping on pedals, but sometimes a well-done fuzztone is all the world needs). Anyway, there's this reverb sound that appears on both albums, one that is simple regeneration or short, slapback echo. It's such an ear-catching sound, because it makes the fuzz sound HUGE. Now, I wasn't certain if it was Plastic Crimewave playing those sounds on Save The World, but a similar regenerative, short echo appears on Moonrises. It's a strong effect, given the simplicity of elements and rhythmic execution of the record.