Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Episode #7: American Turkeys

[via strange eyes]

It's Episode #7 of the Waterloo Sunset podcast, a few days early for Thanksgiving. This week we're thankful for an opportunity to look for America...track list below:

The Band--"Theme From The Last Waltz"
BlakRoc--"On The Vista"
William DeVaughan--"Be Thankful For What You Got, Pt. 1"
The Band--"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"
Jim Henry--"Lord, I'm In Trouble"
Johnny Cash--"Green, Green Grass of Home"
Wilco--"Ashes of American Flags (Live)"
Simon & Garfunkel--"America"
John Fahey--"America"

Waterloo Sunset Podcast #7
Total running time: 37:49

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mulatu Astatke: New York – Addis – London: The Story of Ethio Jazz, 1965-1975

Here's my Prefix review for a new retrospective chronicling the groundbreaking work from Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke.

"Basically, I think there's no difference between music and science,“ Mulatu Astatke told Tel Aviv’s Haaretz in 2006. “The musician puts together different sounds in order to create something interesting; the chemist combines different chemicals in order to create something interesting. The success of both is determined by the proportions within the structure that they create. In music it's called counterpoint; in science it has another name. But the principle is exactly the same." It’s this scientific quality that has made the Ethiopian jazz titan’s music so singular and original in its sound. The cross-pollination is almost unfathomable on paper: American jazz and funk, traditional Ethiopian melodies, Latin rhythms, and even a dash of psychedelia all work together in Astatke’s astonishing compositions. This new retrospective, a snapshot of his most creative period, spanning 1965-75, reveals an unheralded master with a firm grasp on a dizzying array of styles and cultures.

Born in western Ethiopia, Astatke’s parents wanted him to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering, but he fell in love with jazz and instead became the first African student to attend the Berklee College of Music. In the early 1960s, he moved to New York, the melting pot of melting pots and the perfect breeding ground to unite the disparate sounds and techniques that he had accumulated up to that point. He recorded for small labels in both New York and London, but it wasn’t until he returned to Ethiopia in the late 1960s that his career took off. Astatke became one of the leaders of the cultural renaissance that took root in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The “Swingin’ Addis” scene allowed him to experiment further, but his creativity was squashed when the communist regime took power in the mid-1970s. Astatke fell into obscurity until 2005, when director Jim Jarmusch included his music on the soundtrack to Broken Flowers. He is now recording his psychedelic jazz once again, this time with the Heliocentrics as his backing band.

Astatke’s output featured here is the perfect material for soundtracks: It’s cinematic and enigmatic, full of smoky corners and plenty of atmosphere. Most of these “Ethio-jazz” compositions are single-chord explorations, showcasing his ethereal vibraphone playing. The minor-key psych-funk of “Mulatu” allows Astatke to truly stretch out as feverish sax solos float in and out, creating a moody masterpiece that constantly shape-shifts despite being built around just one note. He replaces traditional Ethiopian instruments with Western guitars, drums, Rhodes piano, and horns, and it’s excitingly disorienting: A sinewy African melody (provided by entwining horns) leads the dancing “Yekermo Sew” over a dark, soulful jazz beat; just when you get your bearings, a fuzzy electric guitar solo blasts off with an Ethiopian melody that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 45 from late-'60s San Francisco.

Elsewhere, Astatke incorporates Latin motifs into his Ethio-jazz (“I Faram Gami I Faram,” “Asiyo Belema,” “Girl From Addis Ababa,” “Shagu”), creating bizarre continent-spanning hybrids that feature both singing in Spanish and Amharic (often within the same song). These were recorded with the Ethiopian Quintet in the mid-1960s, but don’t let the band’s name fool you: The Quintet was made up of Puerto Rican jazz players who learned how to play Astatke’s Ethiopian style on the fly. After returning to Addis Ababa in 1969, he became a sought-after arranger for Ethiopia’s premier singers, many of which are featured here. “Lantchi Biye” is the best of the bunch, with teen heartthrob Tilahoun Gessesse wrapping his warbling voice around a dynamic, minimal shuffle. Astatke is at his best on the one-two punch of “Emnete” and “Yegelle Tezeta,” two sides of the same coin. The former is a fiery slice of dark funk, with horns and saxophones coming in from all directions, all in wild competition for your attention; the latter takes the same wicked backbeat and strips it to a core of bass, spiky guitar, and electric piano.

As referenced in that leadoff quote, Mulatu Astatke is something of a mad scientist, combining seemingly opposed genres to create unthinkable concoctions. Yet his unparalleled genius and clarity of vision reveals more similarities than differences in these sounds, and by extension these cultures. By highlighting the rhythmic underpinnings, we can see that the Latin, funk, jazz, and Ethiopian traditions are all cut from the same human-made cloth. So maybe he’s more of a musical ambassador than a mad scientist. Astatke’s compositions aren’t meant to be played out in a sealed, controlled laboratory; they’re meant to be heard and enjoyed by people all over the world. And with his sense of global exploration, fully evident in this astounding document, Astatke wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mulatu Astatke--Yekermo Sew
Mulatu Astatke--Mulatu

Friday, November 20, 2009

Funeral Singers

Califone's new video for their standout song, "Funeral Singers." Taken from the album All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, a companion soundtrack to lead singer Tim Rutili's debut film of the same name. The album is out via Dead Oceans.

califone - funeral singers from Califone on Vimeo.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Episode #6

[via collect]

It's Episode #6 of the Waterloo Sunset podcast. It's a crazy mix this week--dance, punk, funk, crunk, psych, folk--they're all given due representation. In it to win it, folks:

Julian Casablancas--11th Dimension
The Strokes--New York City Cops
Sleigh Bells--Ring Ring
Funkadelic--Can You Get To That
Death--Keep On Knocking
Thee Oh Sees--Sugar Boat
Timber Timbre--Lay Down In The Tall Grass
Woods--"Rain On"
Neil Young--"River of Pride"
Uncle Tupelo ft. Doug Sahm--"Give Back The Key To My Heart"

Waterloo Sunset Podcast #6

Total running time: 37:39

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thee Oh Sees--Dog Poison

Here's my Prefix review for the new EP from San Fran's preeminent psych-popsters, Thee Oh Sees.

Garage rock -- that kaleidoscopic subgenre of rock 'n' roll, born from the eager simplicity of “Louie Louie” -- has had remarkable staying power. Its popularity has ebbed and flowed over five decades, but a new generation has always been there to claim its scrappy banner. In 2009, we’ve seen a resurgence (or, more accurately, another peak in the cycle) of this lo-fi sound, where artists have embraced its Luddite-inspired ethos of tape hiss, muddled vocals, and even muddier music. The good thing about garage rock is anybody can make this music, actual recording studios be damned. The bad thing is literally anybody can make this music, actual talent be damned.

You can put San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees in the former column: They are a good thing in this often-crowded subgenre, rising above the pack with memorable songwriting, dead-on harmonies, and instrumentation other than your standard guitar/bass/drums setup. Their backstory resembles their cluttered sound; it’s full of lineup changes, name changes (OCS to the Ohsees to Thee Oh Sees), and a myriad number of singles, splits, EPs, and LPs spread out over several record labels. Their evolving sound and longevity (forming in 1997) have made them something resembling garage-rock elder statesmen, and they’ve already had a good year so far with the release of their stellar eighth full-length, Help, back in April. With the band's noted productivity, Dog Poison could appear tossed-off, especially considering that its 10 songs skip by faster than most EPs. Yet this is a toss-off that many likeminded bands would kill to have in their discography.

As we saw earlier with Help, Thee Oh Sees have gravitated to a more streamlined approach. Their songs are now compact bursts of psychedelic fury sweetened by girl-guy, reverb-drenched harmonies. Here on Dog Poison, they replace fuzzy electric guitars with fuzzy acoustic guitars, but the intensity and weirdness remains undiminished. Opener “The River Rushes (To Screw MD Over)” burns quickly before a bleating flute breaks through the mix to complement singer John Dwyer’s gleeful abandon. Unlike most of their peers, they have a sense of humor wafting through their freakouts, showing up as caveman-like growls on “Dead Energy” or the panpipe accompaniment competing with laser blasts of guitar feedback on “I Can’t Pay You to Disappear.” “Sugar Boat,” sounding like a campfire sing-along from hell, packs at least three potent hooks in its fleeting 120 seconds, while “Head of State” meanders in a psychedelic haze without wearing out its welcome (a testament to Dwyer’s newfound focus). Noisy interludes (“The Fizz,” “Voice in the Mirror”) balance out the surrounding distorted pop, and the ghostly folk of closer “It’s Nearly Over” wraps up the EP nicely.

Quality over quantity, the saying goes, especially in terms of artistic output. Yet Thee Oh Sees have managed to embrace both quality and quantity, giving them a leg up over most other lo-fi acts. Their skill will (and rightfully should) make heads turn, even if ‘60s-inspired garage rock ebbs once again.

Thee Oh Sees--The River Rushes (To Screw MD Over)
Thee Oh Sees--Fake Song

Monday, November 9, 2009


[via soul art]

Drop whatever you are doing, head over to Pitchfork, and take advantage of their "One Week Only" documentary feature, where you can stream Sigur Ros's 2007 film Heima, which chronicles their return to Iceland after a lengthy world tour. Turn out the lights and turn off the phone: this is work of art. Even if you don't like Sigur Ros all that much, you will appreciate their use of music to soundtrack the film's study of the Icelandic landscape and its people. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Timber TImbre--Timber Timbre

I already talked about them here, but I finally got a hold of the self-titled full-length Timber Timbre put out this summer, and it's fantastic. Read my Prefix review below.

You know those songs, the type that suck the air out of the room, making you lean closer to the stereo, as if that will make you understand them any better. Songwriters are lucky to write one of those in their career, but Toronto’s Taylor Kirk (a.k.a. Timber Timbre) has crafted a stunning album with several hit-you-in-the-gut musical moments.

The formula is deceptively simple: Kirk takes his favorite elements of American folk, blues, and soul, strips them down to their rhythmic cores, and holds it all together with his creaky tenor. Nowhere is this more effective than on album standout (and possibly one of the songs of the year) “Lay Down In The Tall Grass,” a veritable perfect storm of quiet intensity. Sounding like he’s perched on the edge of sanity, Kirk slowly unravels an obsessive’s love story while plinking keyboard, organ stabs, muted bass, and tremulous strings bubble underneath his wild-eyed crooning. And then the bottom falls out, leaving his voice alone among the tape hiss and adding some warmth to the frigid atmosphere.

“Tall Grass” is an unblinking gem on a record full of captivating, death-obsessed songs. Acoustic guitar and a lilting melody are all Kirk needs to fully sell the morality tale of “Demon Host,” an ambivalent folk tune that somehow builds to a dynamic peak without getting louder or even adding much extra instrumentation. Elsewhere, he’s content with stretching out an extremely minimal surf riff into a mini-epic with his reverb-heavy voice leading the way (“Magic Arrow”). Later tracks like “Trouble Comes Knocking” find the macabre themes starting to seep into the music itself. Eerie dissonance, courtesy of clashing harmonica and violin bleats, rides a plodding beat on the Frankenstein-like “Trouble,” the combination of bluesy menace and smoky soul creating an uneasy concoction that Kirk appears to enjoy.

Past efforts found Timber Timbre as a solitary, lo-fi folk vehicle, but Kirk recruited some friends to flesh out this, his third album. Better recording fidelity and more bodies in the room don’t diminish the returns. Rather, he uses his new tools sparingly to create a record that burns with an unrelenting passion. Like those old American recordings he obviously loves, Kirk taps into a bygone weirdness that is equally unsettling and exciting.

Timber Timbre--Lay Down In The Tall Grass

Timber Timbre is out now via Arts & Crafts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Deep Blue Sea

Just saw an early screening of the music doc made by All Tomorrow's Parties, the venerable UK music institution that gets artists to curate their own music/art festivals. The film is kaleidoscopic and beautiful to watch, featuring (maddeningly short) performances by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sonic Youth, Grinderman, and many, many more, but it was this scene from Grizzly Bear (which closes the film) that really stunned me.

The ATP film is screening one last night (tonight) here in Austin at the Alamo Ritz before moving on down the road.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Dutchess and the Duke--Sunset/Sunrise

Here's a review I did for the fine folks over at Prefix; more reviews forthcoming.

In an interview late last year, Kimberly Morrison (she being the Dutchess) said, “There’s only so many times you can do the same song in slightly different ways before you just want to do something else.” She was speaking of her band’s punk roots -- Morrison and her Duke cohort (Jesse Lortz) did time in various Seattle punk bands before teaming up a few years ago -- but she could also be alluding to her present. After all, the Dutchess and the Duke’s debut was a distinct song cycle featuring variations on the same themes, musical or otherwise: The tunes were kept short, dark, spare, and were heavily indebted to mid-1960s pop and folk. So what are we to gather from this quote? That Sunset/Sunrise is their prog-rap “experimental” album? Thankfully, no. It’s actually more of the same -- and that’s hardly an insult.

Lortz and Morrison seem content to stay with that classic sound, and Sunset/Sunrise picks up where She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke left off. “Sun comes up/ I’m counting the days I got left/ I’m counting the time on my hands, watch the days roll by,” Lortz wryly intones on album opener (and absolute earworm) “Hands.” It’s the most interesting song Lortz has written, veering from Spanish-tinged acoustic arpeggios into a bluesy fury in 6/8 time, all fueled by a heady mix of organ, electric guitar, and barebones percussion.

The expanded palette is courtesy of producer Greg Ashley (of Gris Gris fame). He adds strings, piano, and multi-tracked harmonies, but it’s his economy of sound that’s the most striking. The songwriting is still front and center, with a certain grittiness left intact by the analog recording. “Living This Life,” with its insistent guitar riff and accidental police siren in the background, has a swaying charm that’s driven home by the Dutchess/Duke harmonies. Their voices fit together perfectly -- Lortz’s rough, world-weary moan to Morrison’s smoky, pleading croon. The sound is cinematic in its simplicity and subtlety: the deep minor-key groans on “Sunrise/Sunset”; the competing guitars on “Never Had A Chance” mimicking the diverging paths of the song’s two lovers; the sighing violins on “Scorpio” adding Ennio Morricone-like noir to a bone-dry lament. However, the darkness wears a little thin by album’s end. It feels long despite its half-hour length, especially during the late misfire, “When You Leave My Arms,” a trifecta of so-so songwriting, Morrison’s weak lead vocals, and Ashley’s overproduction.

Still, The Dutchess and the Duke lend such conviction and humanity to these songs that it’s hard not to like them, even with their occasional missteps. The music is unflinching (and refreshing) in its directness; these are simple songs that rise above being merely odes to their obvious source material. Much like the album cover, this duo finds enough beauty and light in the darkest of places to create a fully realized world, one that’s worth immersing yourself in.

Sunset/Sunrise is out now via Hardly Art, and the Dutchess and the Duke swing through Austin on December 12 to appear at the Mohawk.

The Dutchess and The Duke--Living This Life