Why does a new Sea and Cake record sound so good right now?  Runner comes out this week, relatively hot on the heels of last year’s The Moonlight Butterfly, and I find myself faced with this question: Is this band (or any band prompting the same reflection) actually better on this outing (their tenth) than on their previous nine full-lengths and umpteen EPs and singles and collaborations?  A band is a band partially because of a certain expectancy that their sound will remain in some way consistent.  The Sea and Cake, partially because they are alone in the field with their particular brand of off-rock Herbie Hancocking, has perhaps more than other, less uniquely defined bands been successful in creating this impression of consistency record to record.  You’re not going to confuse a Sea and Cake record for anything but a Sea and Cake record (with the exception of a solo record by any one of its members, that is).  And Runner has all the components of a Sea and Cake record: Same Prekop’s lighter than air aspirated be-bop cadenced vocals, the kilter-offing touch of jazz timing wherever it will fit in with the motorik cadences the band also employs, the bubbling of synthesizers, and Archer Prewitt’s unmistakably patient, willfully, intensely restrained playing style.  As one digression out of many, this record marks the moment when I realized that, unbeknownst to me, Prewitt has for some time ranked among my favorite musicians.  His opening guitar solo on “New Patterns” reminds me of the fine work he did on Sea and Cake frontman Sam Prekop’s 2005 Who’s Your New Professor, especially the solo on “Dot Eye” starting at about 2:20.

So, what have I said?  This is a Sea and Cake record, and all Sea and Cake records share traits in common that make them recognizable and better than the music made by other bands.  So why say anything about this record in particular?  Runner is more Sea and Cake than many of the records that came before it.  It has the leaning-forward, nearly out of control rock energy of 1995’s Nassau and the careful, controlled, clean integration of electronics that marked 1997’s The Fawn, both heavily tempo-oriented records.

Or, perhaps the reason that this record sounds so good has nothing to do with the record or the band that made it.  Perhaps it’s just me, just now.  Maybe it’s just that what my world needs now is a new Sea and Cake record, full stop, and there’s no objectivity that will allow me to preach on my subjective enjoyment of this masterwork.  Have a listen.

Bear Claw – No Band Can Be this Good

Rich Fessler of Bear Claw hurting his bass as much as it hurts him.

During the chilliest years of the Cold War a secret project was undertaken here in the United States of A. to develop the most obviously superior rock music ever conceived for export to countries whose youths were sustained with with inferior rock knockoffs and black market Finnish socks.  It was hoped that this would so demoralize the youth on the other side of the iron curtain that they would abandon their national heritage in droves for the chance to star as extras in an interminable series of sequels to Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  The project was disbanded suddenly with little explanation, but not before the only two products of this secret cultural war were incubated and brought to term in giant tanks covered in tubes and amplifier cords.  One of those is a man named Logan, better known as the Wolverine.  His vicious spiky hands and hot temper, it is rumored, were the prime mitigating factor in the continuation of the project.  However, if the top brass had taken the time to plug him into a Marshall Stack they would have nocturnal emissions listening to that sustain.  I mean, adamantium just rings out forever.  Then maybe the other legacy of that project, Bear Claw, would be a household name today.  Bear Claw combined the best of both worlds- vicious, crystalline, clear and precise aggression tempered with compositional complexity and tightly controlled tone- and no spikes coming out of the hands.

Bear Claw has a new record.

Released on Tuesday and available as a CD/LP combo or digital download, Chicago’s Bear Claw released their Steve Albini-recorded, Bob Westen-Mastered Refuse this Gift via Sick Room Records.  Have a listen.

Get Haunted

Listen to this record.  You can read all the same reviews everywhere, so you don’t need me to rehash them.  As that is what it is, as the rich hues of meaning have already been drained from pale words careening from the walls of the surfeit of reviews out there that quote just-learned (and just as soon forgotten) facts as though they were common knowledge, I’m going to talk about something else.  Suffice it to say this is good, good, good.

I’ve been reading Alice Munro’s story collection Open Secrets this week.  The experience I have been met with is the very surprise I welcome— as much as one can welcome the unanticipated.  It’s that of picking up an author I’m not familiar with and being drawn in by her matter-of-fact, confident observations, her unapologetic allegations on human nature.  Her voice is loud, rooted in a particular reality and morality, and incontrovertible.  The book is a series of interwoven stories about love’s progress, transformation, or dissolution set in a rural town in Ontario, with heavy reliance on the devices of correspondence, travel, rural eccentrics, and unsolved disappearances.  So, in addition to recommending a record so widely touted already, I suggest picking up some Munro and seeing what she can do for you.
Colors In Time by Sonic Cathedral

Trans Am at Knitting Factory BK, and What Might be an Image of the Same

I had the happy accident on Saturday to walk past the Knitting Factory and notice the placard advertising Trans Am were playing the following night.  So, Sunday night, to cap off an anodyne afternoon of walking across the Williamsburg Bridge to see The Runaways (it was good), I was back at the Knitting Factory filling my face with rock.

There were two opening acts— The first was the phenomenal Jonas Reinhardt, whose perfect channeling of Gary Numan, rhythmic Krautrock, and the show’s headliners were worth the price of admission all by themselves.  The second was affront to talent Nice Nice (what is with you guys picking up mediocre to plain bad electronic acts and putting them on your decreasingly illustrious roster, Warp?).

Jonas Reinhardt’s guitarist and vocalist is Trans Am’s Phil Manley- to whom, not knowing this at the time because I never really knew what the Trans Am guys look like, I gave an enthusiastic “What up, awesome opening band?” type “Fucking awesome!” to as we passed in the crowd.  It made a little more sense why they sounded so much like an austere version of Trans Am once I figured that out.

While I enjoyed myself near to stupefaction during Jonas Reinhardt’s set, I felt I had to avenge the second act’s very presence or become scarce so as to avoid trouble with the security staff of the establishment.  Most fun activities in New York, though, are sanitized cattle stockades, meaning that even if an opening band is really, really bad, bad like Nice Nice was bad, you can’t really leave the venue and go to the bar  Why can’t you go to the bar?  You can’t go to the bar because the club is maximizing its income by hosting a stand-up open mic event (I doubt those open-mic’ers were getting paid for the booze money they were funneling into the joint with their humiliating efforts) in the only other part of the place you could find refuge.  You also can’t throw things, etc.  So, I had to wait it out.

Nice Nice nervously manipulated live loops and step sequences while a drummer wankily flourished his command over his weird drum set.  The sequencer/guitar guy looked a lot like Dana Carvey.  The drummer had one of those snares that’s only about half as deep as it should be, meaning it gave that high-pitched, unsatisfying pop every time it was struck, and his toms were all about 3/4 of the circumference of a normal set of toms.  He was obviously a very good drummer, though he could have done with a band and a kit that didn’t inspire homicide.

Trans Am kept true to the form of their current record, Thing, out on Thrilljockey just this month, and played a compelling, dread-inspiring set of off-time changes, insane drum artistry, vocoded enigma, and dazzling bass and guitar chops.  I particularly liked that they threw Red Line‘s “I want it all” and “Play in Summer” in the setlist, the most accessible tracks of one of their more off-putting albums.  A song like “Futureworld” just wouldn’t have fit in the hemi-kiltered set they had put together.

If I may make a comparison across art forms, Trans Am seems to work on a cycle similar to Pynchon’s— Pynchon, in ten-year arcs, swings in his prose production from the purposefully and masterfully baroque (V), drifting to the easier to digest narrative (The Crying of Lot 49), to the abstracted and purely hallucinatory (Gravity’s Rainbow), back to the straighforward Narrative (Vineland), and then further rule-bound into  the baroque (Mason & Dixon) before swimming back into the waters of the collective unconscious (Against the Day).  Trans Am follows a similar arc from the very conventionally digestible to the esoteric and ineffable, with the mastery and skill to pull it off.  Some records see them hewing very closely to a theme and song-oriented approach (Futureworld 1999, Liberation, 2004, Sex Change, 2007), while others, contain more exploration of theme and instrumentation (Red Line, 2000, TA 2002, Thing, 2010).

The feel is always a kind of cold dread and ecstatic expectation, and they do it well on Thing. From the album art to the song titles, Thing is an sci-fi/psychological thriller of expectant encounters with the uncanny and uncertainty.  They’ve been one of my favorite bands for over ten years, and I’m glad I got to see them play again.

In Which the Author Digs Luke Sutherland’s ’90s and Some of the Oughts

Luke Sutherland was frontman to two bands that touched on post rock, trip hop, drum and bass, and spoken word throughout the musical and cultural tumult of the ’90s, that temporary reprieve from the degeneration of all things cultural at the end of the ’80s.  He’s also, I’m just learning tonight, a thrice-published novelist.

My first exposure to Sutherland’s work was when I stumbled onto his Too Pure label band Bows back in college at the short-lived local franchise of Co-Op Records on Main Street, Normal.  The former skater dude running the place was going out of his way to recommend everything he could to a really square guy who didn’t know much more than that he sincerely wanted to know about good music.  It was this same store owner- it may have even been in the same week or on the same visit- who, after I let on that I was into Porthishead, introduced me to Morcheeba and Monk & Canatella.  I remember distinctly, as he handed me a copy of ’99’s Blush, he was very excited Bows was fronted by former Long Fin Killie frontman Luke Sutherland.  I remember hearing that bit of background information, I remember acting like I knew what he was talking about, and I remember buying the CD trying not to let on that I didn’t.  I took the CD out of the store with me, stared at its translucent paper cover art with its ghostly images of wings and words floating up from the pages behind, and I popped it into the discman in my reliable used Mustang (white).  I tried to get into for a couple of weeks as I drove around and did whatever it was that I did in that shitty breeding pit of mononucleosis and meningitis that is a state diploma farm.

I failed in that task.  The acquisition of a taste for Bows’ first record, that is.  I could tell there was something new happening there, but I was still emerging from that GULAG of aesthetics that kids raised on a choice between ’70s classic rock and top 40 radio are born into in America.  I had worked my way through the Industrial sound spectrum, but like most of the populace of our young and frighteningly dangerous country, I was still grasping at subtlety.  I had not yet fully made the cognitive leap that allowed me to appreciate the difference between strength of feeling and depth of emotion.

And, shit, I might as well say it- Blush had something on there that sounded like harps.  Too many harps.  Not mouth harps.  Actual harps.  In retrospect there could only have been one or two songs on that album that had the offensive musical instrument on it, with the larger share of others being quite awesome in their own right.  What can I say?  In a purge it was one of the discs I sold in college.  Blush, it pains me to this day, but I was scared and I pushed you away.  Only in the last year was I able to locate a physical copy of a single from that album, “Big Wings”, at a used record store outside of D.C. (where I also got a copy of Evil Mothers’ Spider Sex and Car Wrecks), but, wouldn’t you know it?  It’s the one with the harps on it.

Push forward to 2001 and I encounter Bows’ 2nd disc, Cassidy, at a mall record store in Japan.  This disc goes on to be one of my favorite records of all time, still in heavy rotation to this day.  It plays as icy clear to the ear with its sparse arpeggios and subsonic D&B breaks, its ecstatic and soaring aspirated vox, as mentholated smelling salts might to the sinuses.  Even so, though Luke Sutherland’s and Long Fin Killie’s name have been ready in my memory since that day the store owner handed me a copy of Blush, and though I have almost bleached the ones and zeroes off the Cassidy disc with almost 10 years of continued exposure to laser light and overplay, to say nothing of the condition of the ones and zeroes fixed electrostatically to the digital media I’m using now, I never once thought to look back and give a listen to Sutherland’s previous project, Long Fin Killie.

And then this past week.

I found a Long Fin Killie record posted on an already disappeared web site (what up, internet?  The gold is just up and walking out of your mine) and I give it a listen.  It was their 1995 debut, Houdini.  I don’t think I would have been into this stuff if I had heard it at the end of the ’90s when I needed big, unsubtle electronics in everything, but I like it now.  Long Fin Killie is Drum ‘n Bass without but the occasional added flourish of anything synthetic.  It’s clean amplifier bass-heavy Post Rock.  It’s punctuating squalls of tasty distortion.  Three albums, all named for figures who made a tragic exit (Houdini, Too Pure 1995, Amelia, Too Pure 1996, Valentino, Too Pure 1998).  Listening to the strummed bass on some of these songs reminds me of Pinback.  I wonder if those guys were big Long Fin Killie fans before acquiring their own fanbase.

Have a listen: