Music of 2017 – Over the Cataract

If you’re like me, 2017 turned on you like bad milk. How to tease out the salvageable, unscorched threads from such a forest fire of a year? Here’s one attempt. This is simply music I clung to over the cataract, not necessarily new.

Boy Harsher – Country Girl

Boy Harsher roll as a panther languidly, inexorably, resignedly, hungrily from the sheets in the dimly lit delta between Art of Noise, Pet Shop Boys, and Skinny Puppy. Less is more. And you will do with less.

Gap Dream – Shine Your Light

In the temples of neo-psychedelia there rings a pure “aum.” It eludes, impish, a pursuing army of faithful axemen and bedroom producers who only ever manage to catch audible doses of it as it dashes behind pillars of amplifier whine or crouches just beyond altars of fuzz. Gap Dream cups this “aum” in his hand, in stillness, and draws it reverent to your ear.

Lo Tom – Lo Tom

David Bazan and TW Walsh, the team who brought us Headphones, reunite as a full band to put the force of a guitar steam hammer behind the plaintive insight of some of the best songwriting Bazan has composed to date. How can a coupling meet its end? Let Lo Tom count the ways.

John Maus – Screen Memories

Weird, sparse, darkly wry atmospheric synthetic pop teasing at the grimier edges of nostalgia. Hot and muddy all at once. Kitsch poorly remembered and botched in its resurrection to live again as art- a fundamental misrepresentation of its awful zombie self.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

This is a raw slab of love and pain. There is nothing here but ecstasy and mortal communion.

(This video is from the previous album, “Cupid Deluxe,” but it was just too rad to leave out.)

Iron Chic – You Can’t Stay Here

2017 was that kind of year, and this was a panacea. As the song “My Best Friend (Is a Nihilist)” contends, “It’s hard to be a human being,” indeed. Where humanity is defined by an ethical liberty, the ability to act with love for others and not out of compulsive self-serving competition, this year has shown us all how desperately empty people are in danger of becoming in pursuit of winning.

Cheveu & Group Doueh – Dakhla Sahara Session

French experimental synth punk rockers collaborate with western Saharan fusion band Group Doueh to create a propulsive, off-kilter driver of a record that only seems to pick up speed and inventiveness as the black circle spins.

Trans Am – California Hotel

Trans Am never missteps, but this is still their best in years. Timely, fragile, paranoid, whimsical, and suffused with dread by turns. Still masters of the vocoder, still their own best session musicians, still their own best producers, and still planting the stoic flag of warning for what’s left of our humanity.

Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon

By SecApx - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59443722Dutch Uncles are inheritors of the legacies of the likes of Thomas Dolby, XTC, Prefab Sprout, and Icicle Works with the rhythmic backbone of a contemporary band like Mew. They have traits of all of these, but at an octane several rounds of distillation higher, faster, and more frenetic. It’s clean, controlled chaos, and it’s absolutely terrific.

Peter Baumann – Transharmonic Nights

The late-seventies solo work of this one-time member of Tangerine Dream is among the sparsest, most hauntingly beautiful German electronic rock ever made. Listening to this record, you are poised perpetually at the exact moment when day crosses over into night, when the streets greet you empty of passers-by. The stage is set forever for a chance meeting with a sudden change in fate. It is trivial, but I should mention that, of all the bands of this ilk being emulated with the aesthetic of the Stranger Things series, the font for the title sequence of that show seems to have been most directly based on that used on the cover of this record.

Idris Muhammad – Turn This Mutha Out

The sound of this record is as synaesthetically deep red and oversaturated as the photo on the sleeve. Heaven here is endlessly rhythmic, its vaults held aloft by millions of congas. The disco-funk presentation of virtuoso jazz percussion, replete with walking disco bass lines, makes what could be passed over by some as an everyday funk album in actuality a very deep, very sexy pop record. It sticks with you. I’ve played this over and over and over this year. If you need to get away, retreating into this record’s dense, crimson, nighttime sound is like returning to the precipice of love. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sylvester – Stars

I was tipped to this album when I heard the haunting, oddly contemporary closing track, “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight,” during the end credits of an episode of the second season of Master of None. The straightforward pathos and desire for the fulfilment of connection is only heightened by the austere, technological, Kraftwerk-esque chill of the synthetic bed atop which it lays. The record ranges from the life-affirming bombast of the best of nightclub disco to the brilliant aforementioned synthetic confessional. Sylvester was one of humanity’s own spotlights on the runway to love.

Destroyer – Ken

There is no one quite like Dan Bejar, the poet behind Destroyer. This album reaches like a response across the years to a mystical challenge he posed, seemingly to himself, on his 2006 record, the life-changing “Destroyer’s Rubies.” On that record, where one of his characters in the title track “took a room at the castle” that “paid for itself,” he experienced a “series of visions,” the content of which he assured us that he wouldn’t reveal:

Blessed doctor, do your worst.
Cut me open, remove this thirst.
Hidden, but near.
A series of visions, I won’t repeat them here.
I won’t repeat them here.

It’s the end of 2017, and the incurable sick among us draw us nearer to the end of us all, so why not reveal the dream now? And so he does, at the climax of “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” the third song on “Ken,” the new record that plays like something by a more a melancholic, atmospheric New Order.

What comes round is going round again
Now let me tell you about the dream:

I had no feeling, I had no past
I was the arctic, I was the vast
Spaces without reprieve

I was a dreamer
Watch me leave

And as 2017 goes, so might we just all. Love to you, peeps.

 

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.

My Music Picks for ’07

There is so much music out there in so many different genres with such an endless array of clandestine channels of distribution now. It’s distracting, and it can lead to the impression that it’s all sort of being averaged into this high-speed slurry of mediocrity. Music is folk again- the players are more ubiquitous, but the Shakespeares are still just as few. In the midst of all that music coming out that’s demanding an equal amount of your diminishing time and attention (that amount is 100%, if you weren’t aware) there are still gems. That said, this was still a weird year for music.

Forgive my imperfection- I am only human, and I can only develop a relationship with so many recordings in a year. In no particular order, the records I liked the most this year are:

Private Lives – Private Life (can still be bought as part of the Soul Jazz Records singles compilation.)

The machine cries for the loss of its diginity and humanity, and we get to dance to it.

Shellac


“Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Shellac)

Rock music consisting of only a few moving parts. Please watch your fingers.

Black Devil Disco Club


“28 After” (Black Devil Disco Club)

Spooky, nostalgic, and messy.

Radiohead


“In Rainbows” (Radiohead)

A driving disquiet.

The National


“Boxer” (The National)

A quieting angst.

LCD Soundsystem


“Sound of Silver” (LCD Soundsystem)

The kids seem to like it, but it’s still better than anything anyone else is doing.

Andrew Weatherall


“The Bullet Catcher’s Apprentice” (Andrew Weatherall)

Giorgio Moroder listening to Skinny Puppy.

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists


“Living with the Living” (Ted Leo and The Pharmacists)

Ted is a machine, a beautiful machine that only tells the truth.

Trans Am


“Sex Change” (Trans Am)

I think these guys riff in their sleep, like dogs run in theirs. There is no reason a band should be this good at playing their instruments.