Mingus and His Message

•June 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus

The works of Charles Mingus are perhaps more unique than any other jazz musician or composer. His works are not only unique within the jazz world, but just in his discography it’s difficult to pin down two albums that are similar. Part of this comes from the fact that he would alter his sound significantly and often such as on the 1960 album “Blues & Roots.” One of the defining elements of Mingus’ work is also what can unify and separate his albums: storytelling. Mingus’ music almost always has a very defined and specific story or concept behind it, but that story is always changing. Two definitive Mingus albums 1957’s The Clown and 1964’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady have similar ambitions in that Mingus has a distinct concept behind each song, and often spoke about them in his extensive liner notes. The albums differ in many ways though, and The Clown lays ideas that would later be pushed to an extreme on Black Saint: Mingus’ masterpiece in ’64.

The opening track on The Clown, “Haitian Fight Song,” is one of Mingus’ greatest achievements as a bass player. It is bookended with two very complex bass solos from Mingus without any backing musicians. He explained in his liner notes that the solo is one that he can’t play unless he’s deeply concentrated on prejudice and persecution. The solo ends on one fast strong bass line that is then passed over to the saxophone and repeated until it is slowed down and the song comes to a close. His playing is equal parts soulful and complex here, and the saxophone and trombone playing are so strong that the complete absence of trumpet is not a problem. It sounds stripped down and is one of the pieces from the album Mingus’ used to show critics and other musicians that he could indeed swing while staying musically ambitious.

“Fight Song,” in contrast to his later album however, is no preparation for the whirlwind of dissonance, layered melodies, and expansive instrumentation found in just the first track of Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The section immediately features a deep dissonance coming from the tuba, an instrument rarely used in jazz at the time; the instrument choice immediately shows Mingus’ orchestral ambitions he stated he had with Black Saint that go all the way back to Duke Ellington. The section, like the entire album, is incredibly dense and features multiple layers of instruments working with and against each other. It is the sort of record that you notice new things every time; a time change, a short piano melody buried under explosive brass. Mingus’ band will often build extreme tension over several minutes only to have it abruptly and effortlessly fall into a lighter swinging section, such as on the great release that comes through “Track C”. This technique is made even more noticeable if you look at the album as one extended song cycle because regardless of track distinctions Mingus weaves musical motifs through the course of the album.

Black Saint's famous album cover

One of the key differences found between these albums is that The Clown has a different concept on each track, while Black Saint is one conceptual piece. The title track of the Clown is one of Mingus’ most famous storytelling moments. The track features Jean Sheppard whose most famous storytelling moment is the film, “A Christmas Story,” improvising a story Mingus originated about the death of a clown. Mingus’ explained that the story of a clown that lives only to make people laugh finds that people laugh the most when he suffers. In his original story it finally built up to the Clown shooting himself to the roar and applause of the crowd, but Sheppard takes it in a more ambiguous direction that Mingus said he preferred. The lengthy track features an improvisation where circus-y sounding solos are taken at breaks between Sheppard’s spoken parts, and then when Sheppard tells the story the band improvises textural sounds that help paint the picture. It achieves something very unique in Mingus’ work, the story is more direct than any other due to Sheppard, but the shift between the direct solos and the underlying textural sections provide imagery that pushes it beyond a spoken word piece. The death of the clown is never stated outright, but the climactic build of the music with Sheppard’s frantic voice at the end expresses it brilliantly.

Mingus' Clown

The storytelling on Black Saint is never as explicitly laid out as The Clown and doesn’t seem like it is intended to be. Moods are implied through the subtitles of the tracks, and Mingus himself was reluctant to discuss how he felt about the music and famously had his psychologist review it in the original liner notes. So what can be said about the music? Compared to the earlier albums this record is trying to create one massive connected statement, particularly in the B-side of the record where he does away with track distinctions and puts all the sections into one 18 minute track, a choice made later the exact same year by Coltrane on A Love Supreme. The B-side has sections of deeply dissonant furious sounding music and joyous sections that again evoke Ellington-era big bands. On a few occasions all the instruments stop and reveal a flamenco style acoustic guitar solo. The final minute of the album is a re-establishment of the melodies played in the first minute. It’s an ending his psychologist said sounded unfinished, but filled with hope. All of these moments point to the fact that Mingus was no longer concerned with telling an explicitly defined story; here he is confident in the music speaking for itself.

I listen to the orchestral, dense Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and hear all of the suffering, joy, beauty, and anger Mingus and his band release while knowing that it was recorded in the same year as Coltrane’s deeply spiritual A Love Supreme; it feels not just an achievement for these musicians but for jazz as a whole. Black Saint made me think of Buddy Bolden more than anything, who is cited as a catalyst for jazz all the way back in 1906 before he went into a mental hospital for the rest of his life as the result of a violent tendencies and a nervous breakdown. More than half a century later we have Mingus, a man cited as being brutal, violent, and pretty fucking crazy, also locked up in a mental hospital. A man who, in the liner notes of this album, said he was not half as crazy as the world leaders in charge. This album captured the history of the blues and roots from Bolden’s time and looked forward with the ambition of a genius. In the words of Mingus –

“Crazy? They’d never get out of the observation ward of Bellevue. I did. So, listen how. Play this record.”

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FIRST LISTEN: Panda Bear’s “Tomboy”

•February 17, 2011 • 2 Comments

Parts of this article were adapted from my feverishly typed tweets during the event, you can read those here: http://twitter.com/MilesBowe

After about a year of waiting I have finally heard the completed version of Tomboy.

Tomboy

The listening party at Le Poisson Rouge yesterday was a very intimate experience. Roughly 50 people showed up for the 6PM listening, and nearly everyone was sitting on the floor in reverence once it began. People were completely silent during the songs, some had their eyes closed while others intensely looked into space. People were so intensely listening that my getting up to use the bathroom at one point caused everyone around me to flinch.

Now enough about the setting, everyone just wants to hear about the album.

1. You Can Count On Me – I remember thinking this song might work as the final song on the album, Lennox has ended many sets recently with this so I was put off when I found out its the opener. The song works really well, however. From the get go it shows you everything Tomboy is about. Its got a huge echo-y sound. The remixed version is crisper and clearer. You can tell from the start that Lennox’s vocals are at their best ever on Tomboy.

2. Tomboy – The title track was knocked by people when it came out. Tomboy has gotten one of the more drastic changes, and it sounds significantly better. Right from the start hits you with massive synths and bizarre electronic squelches. Upon listening to the old version I realize that these touches are present, but they’re so low in the mix you can barely tell they’re there. Now these things have been brought to the forefront, and are even louder than the repetitive guitar strumming. And when that dissonant effects come in around 2 minutes in the original, it now sounds live a fucking storm hitting midway through the song. Like all the songs here, the vocals have been boosted to great effect. My original thought remains: This song is a monolith of sound.

Panda Bear's Tomboy

Artwork for Tomboy single

3. Slow Motion – This was the favorite from the singles, and here its been expanded. Much like Tomboy there are some almost thunder-like effects added to Slow Motion, but they benefit Tomboy far more. The storm like effects constantly fight with the repetitive handclaps and piano loop to create some cool drama. Slow Motion isn’t as greatly improved as some of the others, but that might be because it was already such a great song.

4. Surfer’s Hymn – This begins with what could be xylophone and a thudding 4/4 drum beat. The vocals on this song are fucking gorgeous. Insert obligatory reference to how the title is also a Beach Boys song. Overall this is just an awesome Panda Bear song.

5.  Last Night at the Jetty – You’ve heard this one, its out on the internet now! I’ll post the link at the bottom so yo can hear it. My thoughts on it? Well its been cleaned up wonderfully, and now it reveals some pretty great drum work that was muddled before. That middle section (I know, I know, I know) might just be the most blissful thing Noah Lennox has recorded, its the perfect centerpiece to the album.

6. Drone – I remember some people complaining about Drone when the single came out. It might not be a song for everyone, but I’ll say two things about it. Its pretty much the same song you know, if you thought it was monotonous originally its not like Panda Bear added breakbeats or something. That said, it works really well in the context of the album. Its a nice bridge to the second half of Tomboy.

Artwork for You Can Count on Me single

7.  Alsatian Darn – This fought with Slow Motion for my favorite of the singles and its been made even better now. What already kicked ass is now just made even bigger in every way. Its loud and exciting, and after these months of hearing it, still a major highlight. Its well placed considering what comes next…

From here on out it was all new songs. So these were all very first impressions (I’d heard a live bootleg of Benefica, but believe me it doesn’t do it justice)

8. Scheherazade – Everyone was caught off guard by this, since its mainly just vocals and piano the whole time. I missed about a minute of this song, because of the aforementioned bathroom break (I shouldn’t have drank all that crab juice…). I heard most of this though, and its a little off-putting because its the first song on the album to break away from the tone. It reminds me of “No More Running” off MPP, sort of the token song on the album that people didn’t immediately adore. Its a very gentle moment on what’s now become a pretty heavy album.

Artwork for Last Night at the Jetty single

9. Friendship Bracelet – This song reminded me of AC more than any other. These synth loops chug away throughout the song, but it definitely felt calmer than some of the earlier songs.

10. Afterburner – HOLY SHIT! The penultimate song on Tomboy lives up to its badass name. I’d call this the liveliest song on the album. Its got a tribal feel to it, and pounding and pulsing drums. Lennox’s voice is at its most intense and powerful here. I didn’t get times for anything, but this also felt like the longest song on the album. It has a really long instrumental outtro. I kept thinking I could see this being played in a club somewhere. The song builds pace, and eventually the beat slows and fades away.

11. Benefica – The final song on Tomboy. I always get really fanatic about album closers. Its such an important spot on the album, its the final thought you leave people with. That said, Benefica is a masterpiece. Its filled with shimmer synths, and Lennox gives his best vocal performance to date, which make it the album highlight for me. Its just that good, and it ends what’s already a phenomenal album on a perfect note.

Final Thoughts: Tomboy is a wonder to hear. Lennox spoke in Rolling Stone recently about how he felt the record was heavy sounding, and while not negative certainly about weathering the storm.  I didn’t get what he meant until I heard this final mixed version, but that feeling really shows through the music.

Tomboy works as an album best of all, its something to be heard from start to finish. Its not as simple as we thought originally: just a collection of singles, that would be put together and released as an album. After spending months pouring over these songs, I couldn’t prepared myself for how breathtaking this record it.

Tomboy is due April 12th on Paw Tracks

Panda Bear

Last Night at the Jetty – http://stereogum.com/637511/panda-bear-last-night-at-the-jetty-album-version/mp3s/

And yes, it is the best album I’ve heard this year. (Sorry James Blake, you gave it a damn good try)

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)

•February 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Tim Hecker's new album

These guys must really hate pianos.

Right off the bat Tim Hecker should get some major acknowledgment for having one of the coolest album titles and covers I’ve seen in a while. If you don’t know much about the Canadian electronic composer Tim Hecker’s work you might see that title and expect some especially harsh noise, but you’d be oh so wrong.

“Ravedeath, 1972” is filled with some of the finest ambient drone in recent memory. Its more than just beautiful soundscapes however, there are touches of harshness found throughout especially in some of the glitch elements Hecker incorporates. A great example of this is found in “The Piano Drop,” the opening track on the album. Beginning with hazy static  pulses the song subtly moves into a sharp focus before falling into an even greater state of degradation than when it began as it fades away; a perfect beginning.

Hecker has a great talent at arranging his albums.  His songs rarely climax, but when one thinks of his albums as something to be heard from start to finish you realize that he takes his listeners on a very dynamic journey. The way “Harmony in Ultraviolet” so gently set up the explosive second half is a testament to his vision, and Ravedeath is brilliantly sequenced. The 16 minute epic “In the Fog” (which shifts tremendously through its 3 sections) concludes as a powerful storm of glitchy drone, but is then followed by the achingly beautiful “No Drums,” the gentlest track on the album. As the album began with the three part “In The Fog” it ends with the three part “In the Air,” the final section of which is one of the undeniable highlights. The fog and the static disappears in Ravedeath’s final moments and allow a lone piano to slowly bring the album to a fading close.

Tim Hecker’s work is often given morbid titles, and that’s more true than ever here. A concept he describes as being about the death of rave with artwork showing the death of a piano, in an album containing songs with references to studio suicides and hatred of music. It is perhaps because of this that the beautiful “Ravedeath, 1972” is the most cathartic work of Tim Hecker’s career.

Merzbow – Amlux

•November 8, 2010 • 2 Comments

I started this blog with the intention of writing about noise and experimental music with the occasional pop album. Somehow most of my posts have been about indie rock, and I’d like to change that. So let’s talk about a very special musician.

Merzbow.

The word has caused more groaning than any other in the music world with the possible exception of “Justin Beiber”.

People that don’t like Merzbow often declare that all of his hundreds of records sound exactly the same, but I find people who say this usually have not even sat through one record by him. Merzbow is a great artist but he doesn’t meet you halfway. His songs are often very long and they require you to sit through the whole thing. What I love about Merzbow, and especially the album I’m posting on, Amlux, is that you really feel rewarded for sitting through the whole thing.

A  song, such as “Looping Jane,”  offers such a wide range of dynamics throughout that it becomes a very satisfying listen. “Jane” ominously builds for several minutes as it adds layer upon layer, and shifts between various loops. The opener “Takemitsu” builds off this rattling and propulsive drum loop.  At one point the song breaks apart into a stuttering freak-out that is one of my favorite moments in any of his songs.

The closer Luxurious Automobiles is damn good. Its a pretty quiet song over the course of its 22 minutes, mostly building sounds off a few loops, one sounds like helicopter blades, another sounds almost like horns. It always comes back to the signature Merzbow drone, you know the one, it sounds like you’re hearing an explosion far off in the distant. I fucking love that.

No Age – Everything In Between

•September 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

No Age’s third album is here and there as been a lot of anticipation for it (mind you not as much as Deerhunter’s fourth album). The band promised a new songs would be more mellow and incorporate so many tape loops that they need to tour with an extra member now. Those elements are definitely present, and looking at the album as a whole No Age almost sound like Disco Inferno at their best. Rest assured though there’s a ton of noise on this record and No Age are still punk as fuck.

Everything in Between is a great record because for every great classic sounding No Age moment, like opener “Life Prowler,” there are also moments where Randy Randall and Dean Spunt sound like they are really stretching themselves in a good way. After a record like Nouns, this band could have shot out countless records that sounded exactly the same and been very successful, but on songs like the first single “Glitter” and “Common Heat” No Age sound like they are pushing themselves into new places. Said songs have clearer vocals and a clearer sound, which gives the album great contrast when they’re sandwiched around the burning and fierce “Fever Dreaming.”

This is easily the most dynamic album No Age have released, and surprisingly it features the most instrumental and ambient elements of their career. The entire second half of Everything in Between is really pushes the new sound Spunt and Randall discussed in interviews. Starting with the short and pretty “Katerpillar” the album really starts incorporating the tape loops and the guitar haze. The trio of songs, “Sorted,” “Dusted,” and “Positive Amputation” come near the end of the record and really show how much No Age push this new approach. Two of them are instrumental, the other might as well be, and after all the rock songs before hand they remind the listener how No Age can make tremendously beautiful music. “Positive Amputation” has a fragile piano melody that rises just about all of the soft guitar squall; “Sorted” does something similar with percussion that’s high in the mix and vocals that aren’t. “Dusted” is all guitar and tape, it doesn’t really go anywhere or develop during its near 3 minutes, but I would argue that it is the most blissful song Randal and Spunt have ever recorded.

The centerpiece of the album “Valley Hump Crash” has a shockingly crisp and poppy guitar melody accompanied by samples of cars speeding before laying on the noise in its brilliant final minute. Finally there’s “Chem Trails” a closer which sums up everything No Age are about. It starts soft and distant, and quickly moves into the warmest and best song on the album. Spunt and Randall trade vocal lines back and forth, and drums, guitar, and tape loops all work in perfect harmony. The song appropriately features fireworks exploding which is all the more fitting because Everything in Between is a huge success.

Track List:

* – Recommended

  1. Life Prowler – 2:38
  2. Glitter – 3:49
  3. *   Fever Dreaming – 3:50
  4. Depletion – 3:18
  5. Common Heat – 2:27
  6. Skinned – 2:58
  7. Katerpillar – 1:31
  8. * Valley Hump Crash – 3:52
  9. Sorts – 2:35
  10. * Dusted – 2:44
  11. Positive Amputation – 2:53
  12. Shed and Transcend – 3:21
  13. * Chem Trails – 2:55

Halcyon Digest is streaming right now!

•September 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The new Deerhunter album is currently being streamed on NPR. As someone who has been listening to it non-stop for a week I highly advise giving it a listen.

Here is the link to the album stream

I recently wrote about the song “Helicopter” off of the new album, a highlight among many.

Halcyon Digest comes out September 28th on 4AD.

No Age – Nouns

•September 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In anticipation of the new No Age album Everything In Between I’m taking a look back on their two previous albums, last week was Weirdo Rippers, here is their sophomore album Nouns.


In 30 minutes and 12 songs, No Age made one of the funnest rock records of the decade. I didn’t expect how much the whole lo-fi rock trend would catch on and stay popular even now, but if you go back a lot of the bands are pretty forgettable. Nouns, however, is an album that I think will stay pretty well respected through the years, mainly because of how genuine Randy Randall and Dean Spunt sound. So much has been written about “Eraser” which seems to have attained status as a classic,  it perfectly encapsulates every element that makes No Age great in under 3 minutes. it deserves the title though there are so many highlights on this album it would be criminal to just concentrate on that.

The big brash rock songs on here are the best of No Age’s career. “Miner” and “Cappo” combine explosively noisy music with sensitive vocal which in “Miner’s” case are mixed so low as to give it a sloppy shoegaze feel. “Cappo” despite being one of the most feedback drenched songs on a very feedback drenched album actually has clear and touching lyrics and has one of the most memorable lines on the album: “Don’t you wanna cry?/If I were you I’d wanna try and force it out.” Elsewhere “Teen Creeps” gives one of the best hooks on the album, a brief  and startlingly clear guitar riff in the midst of the storm of distortion. They don’t overuse it as either the second long riff in “Teen Creeps” only appears twice in the songs 3 1/2 minutes, which makes you want to listen all over again. That 1/2 minute at the end is worth noting, its a gorgeous little coda in the tradition of Loveless that appears out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the song preceding it.

There’s nothing quiet on Nouns, but relatively speaking,  the quieter songs on Nouns are breathtaking. “Impossible Bouquet” buzzes beautifully like something off of Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, an album that has a lot to do with No Age’s sound. “Errand Boy” chaotically shifts from being the quietest song on the album to the most uncontrollably noisy and back again. “Kappo” was easily the prettiest thing No Age ever recorded, which while not their most common quality is nonetheless an important element to their sound. I say “was” because their is a  song on the upcoming album that sets the bar very high.

Even with pretty ambient washes, No Age are a punk band, a true punk band. What defined punk in the 70s was the attitude and personality, and Nouns has that in spades. The screeching and unbelievably catchy “Sleeper Hold” in under 2  1/2 minutes  manages to out-do entire discographies of other bands from this scene. It all comes back to the the amazing personality on this album, you get the feeling they really care about their music. The music is so positive that I’ve been able to put this fierce little noise rock album on at parties and had people jumping around loving it.

No Age’s music seems simple, but I assure you its not shallow. They are a tremendously talented pair crafting some stunning music, and on Nouns they make it look effortless.