Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ranting Essay on The Chronicles of Narnia, Dei ex Machinis, and the Angst of Being an Anal Movie Watcher

WARNING: There are probably Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian spoilers in here.

The other day I was watching the Chronicles of Narnia. The second one, Prince Caspian. Don't ask. (Also, pretty much unrelated to what follows here, but I hadn't seen the first film and, though I recall owning the C.S. Lewis books, I'm not convinced I ever read any of them as a child, either). Now, since long before I ever even knew there was a term for it, I've disliked the use of dei ex machinis. Lots of people do. This isn't unusual. Also not unusual is finding dei ex machinis in fantasy and sci-fi stories and movies, as magical or ultra-technological/futuristic elements go perfectly hand-in-hand with pushing-through-the-improbable and tying together loose plot ends that under normal circumstances could probably never be pulled close enough together to tie in the first place. Prince Caspian employs a deus ex machina twice towards the end of the film, and for some reason the way the particulars of the film coalesce just about screams all the ways a deus ex machina can be detrimental to the overall emotional/moral/cultural resonance of a film. I’ve always disliked “gods from the machine” because they are the sign of sloppy writing, ladders or (to use one of Daniel Dennett’s terms) sky-hooks that descend and rescue the writer from the corner they have painted themselves into. For many of us, they completely shatter the suspension of disbelief, and really, can be down right insulting after a significant emotional and temporal investment in a film or book. And, depending on the film, they can have much more devastating consequences to its intended message.

I think a big part of why Prince Caspian's dei ex machinis affected me so powerfully is that Prince Caspian is the first Disney film I can remember seeing that has a plot largely driven by people wanting to kill/trying to kill/succeeding in killing each other. I'm certainly no stranger to violence in movies, and Prince Caspian is hardly graphic, but honestly, as I watched these teens or tweens or whatever sort of adolescents they were actually kill people, I began to feel knotted with some kind of vague, ominous dread. They weren't killing monsters, they were helping monsters kill other people. This is heavy stuff to ride with, especially if the driver is going to bail at the end of the movie. A lot of the so-called monsters (who weren't all that monstrous really; all were archetypal staples of the fantasy congeries, most possessing significant elements of humanity) were stabbed and maimed and blasted and impaled by arrows in the service of the homicidal tween royalty. In fact, for most of the movie, the mixed-bag Narnians are getting their asses utterly spanked, suffering major losses against the all-human Telmarines. Much blood (I'm assuming) was shed and many lives were lost in the struggle to reclaim from the Telmarines the land that rightfully belonged to the Narnians. After the first major battle, the Narnians fail to seize the Telmarines' castle and must retreat. In the second major battle, they again find themselves getting badly beaten, about to lose control of their own stronghold. But then: WAZZA! Deus ex machina! Suddenly Mr. Talking Lion (who is apparently one or two tricks shy of omnipotence) decides he is going to help after all, first making trees flail around and attack people, and then summoning a gigantic Water Jesus to make everyone really, really wet before scaring the remaining Telmarines into surrender by somehow eating a guy on a horse (hold all comments about the Christian allegory found in the stories).

Nietzsche disliked the deus ex machina because it creates a false sense of consolation by attempting to resolve "tragic dissonance" in a manner that isn't metaphysically sound. Without a logical chain of causality, strife means nothing. Neither does reward if it materializes from the ether, largely independent of the actions being rewarded. This is where Prince Caspian blunders so epically. If at any point in time a Talking Lion can step in and thaumaturgically correct the most dissonant of situations, then anyone who suffered or died in an effort to change that situation before the intervention did so for nothing. It means nothing to die for a cause that is ultimately addressed through means outside of possibility and plausibility. Yes, the Narnian’s cause is a noble one in Prince Caspian, but only up to the point where events stop adhering to the logic the story has been developed by. After that, fatal cracks are sent backwards through everything leading up to that point, as though a heavy foot testing the integrity of a delicate sheet of ice finally shifts too much of its weight forward. After spending the better part of two hours gradually increasing the tragic complexity of a tale, claiming there's resolution when a marvelous panacea swoops in from God-knows-where is fraudulent. If at any point the miraculous can affect any outcome, then the events witnessed in the film ultimately mean nothing, because a deterministic chain can never be established, nor can the efficacy of agency be presumed for any character. Arguably, no one or nothing can affect the result of a series of events, because there is the possibility that any logical, Natural-Law-abiding steps taken towards an end can be immediately and utterly prevented or reversed by someone or some thing that doesn't even acknowledge logic or laws! What's the point of dying in a siege on a Telmarine castle if Aslan could've sent Water Jesus through to blast all of the Telmarines out? Or really, how did the Telmarines ever drive the Narnians to the brink of extinction in the first place if Aslan can do whatever he wants? Once illogical flights of fancy are made manifest, the whole back story is fair game for hypothetical applications of magic or divine intervention or implausible coincidence. Fighting and dying and hurting doesn't mean a damn thing if the resolution makes it clear that those things really didn't have to happen. It's meaningless if a Narnian dies at the hands of a Telmarine if the Telmarines can be completely eradicated by Aslan whenever he so chooses, and it means nothing for a Telmarine to die for his cause if it's not even a possibility that the Narnians can be defeated.

This kind of stuff nearly gives me an anxiety attack. Not because I have any resounding interest in the well-being of fictional characters, but because this sort of thing is touted as acceptable. And maybe worse, most people don't even care. David Foster Wallace touched on this when discussing the films of David Lynch: people like to be reassured of certain moral truths and the idea of justice, and movie-watchers do not like to be made to feel uncomfortable "unless the discomfort serves a conclusion that flatters the same comfortable moral certainties [they] came into the theater with" (p. 203) Movies like Prince Caspian have to resort to tossing in a deus ex machina because they ratchet up the tragic dissonance to such an unstable amplitude that the audience's expectation of righteous moral resolution can't possibly be met without resorting to a "god from the machine." If things played out the way the logical reality within these films dictated, evil and suffering would probably prevail. And even movie-goers who dislike trite or formulaic story lines tend to get upset when the bad guys come out on top. I'm not suggesting Prince Caspian should have let the bad guys win because that's what soundness of plot requires. Ideally, Prince Caspian should never have been written so that the good guys had no chance of ever winning without miraculous intervention.

I'm not sure how many other people have filmic crises like this after getting slapped with a fat deus ex machina, but it seems as though most are willing to accept a gnarly plot device so long as it guarantees the “earthly consonance” (to again borrow from Nietzsche) they are expecting. For me, it's brain-scrabbling when I'm forced to ponder whether the displays of justice and moral closure I'm being fed really should give me those warm fuzzy feelings, because just under the surface, I know they're the products of fraud. If I can't suspend my disbelief, if I can't accept that what is presented as goodness and justness is legitimate, then in a way, evil really does win out. I’m then confronted with all sorts of onerous psychic pinpricks, as the deus ex machina just becomes a sober reminder of the pervasiveness of shit and injustice and suffering, because the idealistic fantasy was just a tad too fantastic to slide through as a substitute. And I’m watching a Disney movie, here. I'll stick with Lynch if I want to be accosted by the dark, terrible ambiguity of human morality and existence. With Prince Caspian and the like, I get double slapped: (1) by the insult of having to accept a deus ex machina as a legit resolution and (2) by being denied the reassurance of the hopeful moral order of things by that very unbelievable deus ex machina. Which in a foolishly ironic way, is pretty damn unjust. This is why I particularly loathe the genres of fantasy and science fiction. To me, they always seem to have the opposite effect of what they intend by flushing the nobility of their tales down the toilet of the tenable and into some nether void of wacko irrationality. Suspension of disbelief is the audience's gift to a film maker. Prince Caspian-scale dei ex machinis are like stomping on the gift before the giver's eyes, or worse, wiping your ass with it.

This may all be a bit hyperbolic, yes. I recognize the issue is fairly minor. But as far as it relates to the importance of writing and the integrity of story-telling, etc, etc, I wish I was over-reacting. And believe me, in this Age of Irony, I’m aware that the use of dei ex machinis is fraught with ambiguity. But there’s a big difference between the endings of Dodgeball and Prince Caspian. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of bad writing going on out there in the world. There has been since the first dei ex machinis used in Greek tragedies. But hey, at least I’m not ending this particular example of it with any deities being lowered down via mechane. That would probably undermine my whole argument. Besides, special effects were never the issue here. As far as those are concerned, Prince Caspian’s the bomb.

-Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1872). The Birth of Tragedy. Modern Library: New York.

-Wallace, David Foster. (1995). "David Lynch Keeps His Head." A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Back Bay Books: New York. pp. 146-212.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Really Have Hard Time With This Blog...

...which is why I started another blog! If I can't keep up with one, not keeping up with two shouldn't prove much more difficult. But really, this new jobby is something I've been mulling over for quite a while now, and it seems appropriate based on the sorts of things I've been most interested in writing about lately. Plus, it seems like a good way to better digest the absolutely obscene amount of music I've exposed myself to over the years (and continue to expose myself to). So go check 'er out:

Breath and Substance:
Thoughts on Creative Music

Monday, February 9, 2009

You Lost Me After 3-D...

"I'm dealing with the dark things of the cosmos."
-Sun Ra

I thought I had a pretty decent handle on the four dimensions that we experience every day, but I had no idea things got as out-of-hand as this. The following video is only presented from a "this is pretty interesting to think about" perspective, not as an explanation of accepted scientific fact or an introduction to advanced physics (a field in which I'm waaaaay out of my league). It's the sort of thing that would make an actualist want to go on a homicidal rampage, and I for one don't really buy any of the string theory comments made at the end of the video. (I'm also wary of the suggested ease-of-travel their "folding" analogy implies.)

Imagining the various dimensions is great fun within the context of thought experiments, but I have a hard time finding or accepting any evidence that any of the upper dimensions discussed in this video exist in any form outside of human thought. The possible and the actual are things philosophers and scientists have battled over for centuries, and while it's rewarding and at times illuminating to understand the arguments, healthy skepticism is always recommended. So watch this, have fun scrambling your brain, but don't consider this an endorsement and don't let the video be the sole catalyst to any opinion you form.

Check it:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

When Faces Inadvertently Destroy My Movie-Going Experience

suspension of disbelief

Last night I finally sat down and watched Gone Baby Gone (at one point in the past, it sat for two whole weeks in an unopened Netflix envelope on my desk, and, frustrated both that I was in some sort of weird funk that made me not interested in watching movies and that I was losing money by holding on to the disc for so long, I sent it back without ever having watched it). The movie was pretty good (carried, as I expected, by Casey Affleck's superb acting; his portrayal of Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is one of my favorite on-screen performances of all time), but what struck me more than the plot or production of the film itself is a strange realization that occurred to me in the shower this morning. It's the phenomenon where simply seeing a big-time actor's face is enough to dissolve one's suspension of disbelief.

In this instance, all it took was seeing Morgan Freeman's face to send me crashing back to reality. It became difficult to accept the premises of the movie's fictional world when faced with Freeman's mug. Something about seeing his face immediately prompted my brain to switch from "that's the police chief of Boston" to "that's Morgan Freeman. Oh yeah, this isn't real." Now, I'm not arguing that a willful suspension of disbelief results in me (or anyone else) becoming convinced that, at least during its duration, the movie I'm watching is actually real, just that in the best works of film, your brain doesn't feel the need to constantly remind you that it isn't real. Some actors have a way of shattering that delicate arrangement just by being...themselves.

So what's the reason for this? Is it the inevitable result of a certain level of popularity? Not necessarily, but I think that plays a big hand in it. Brad Pitt is one of the biggest names in the business, but he also happens to be skilled enough to play utterly convincing characters. In movies like The Assassination of Jesse James or Burn After Reading (to pick two recent examples), that fact that he's actually Brad Pitt doesn't distract from the fiction that he's Jesse James or Chad Feldheimer. Johnny Depp and Edward Norton, among countless others, exemplify this, too. On the other hand, though, someone like Gary Busey, who's only ever achieved a cult-level of celebrity, is another person who totally decimates my suspension of disbelief. He makes it difficult to take a movie world seriously (an effect he shockingly almost achieves in the actual world).

Acting skill also plays a role in this, but not in the way you'd expect. Obviously bad acting is going to create tension in the movie/viewer relationship, but generally the worst acting comes from people whose face you don't immediately recognize. What I'm referring to doesn't even require the individual to begin acting when the phenomenon occurs; just seeing them is enough to cause a breakdown in belief. I think what I'm describing is most likely to occur when two elements combine:

1. The person is a decent or even a great actor. Someone that is consistently terrible isn't going to make it high enough up the showbiz ladder to ever have the effect I'm describing. (Brenden Fraiser came to mind as a counter to this point as I was typing it out, but he's not a bad actor: as was pointed out in a review of Inkheart I read this morning, he just doesn't do anything at all. He takes absolutely no risks in his roles. His movies may suck, but it's usually due to forces outside of his acting.)

2. The person has been in a large number of so-so movies. Their acting may have been great in many of these, but the overall impression the films gave was that of "meh."

When both of these elements are in place and that actor then goes on to play a role in a movie that isn't a piece of crap, the moment they appear on screen is likely to jar the viewer, launching them out of the comfort of the movie world. It's almost as though some unconscious portion of you becomes afraid that this particular movie is going to collapse into a mediocre showing like so many others in which that face appeared. Sometimes actors can work their way out of the effect and by the end of the movie you're satisfied, and other times, it becomes the first tear in the fictional fabric of the film. By the end, there's little left to do beyond tossing its tattered remains out.

Maybe all of this is only the case for me. I have a hard time with a lot of movies. I've mostly lost my taste for fantastic premises, and I've developed a cruel and unflinching eye for rooting out inconsistencies in internal logic and plotting. But I can't really blame someone for having a face that becomes a road-bump in my movie-going experience. Still: face-as-a-road-bump is never a good thing.

Photo "Suspension of Disbelief" by Mathieu Struck

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mythical Davis

I had a strange (though welcome) experience last night while watching Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. It was the odd feeling of experiencing Miles Davis as a tangible person, rather than as some archetype or grand concept. I've been a fan of Davis' music for a long time, and, not knowing any different, I embraced the idea of Miles, the legend, as near a god as jazz could produce, but someone dead and passed that couldn't pop up and remind you that, yes, I am just another man, just like the rest of them. As I watched the film last night, I realized that I had never seen Miles in action: I'd never heard him speak with his wispy, gravely voice, seen the idiosyncratic way he'd cock his head to one side and point to his ear after a solo, or the way he sometimes bent towards the ground, playing to his knees. I'd never seen Miles move. He had always been static, staring back from inside a photograph. Mostly though, he was just this sound, amorphous, restless. Primal and modal. He was as much there in the silence, too. He's absent for minutes at a time on some of his albums. Until last night, I could never see where he went during those silences. On record his absence seems profound; in reality, he paces and empties his spit valve. It almost seems like it should be disappointing. But it's not. He was just a dude. He reminds us of the amazing things that certain dudes can do. No divinity required.

As I watched, I had similar reactions to many of the musicians who were interviewed: Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea. All men whose music I've derived endless enjoyment from. But that music was my only point of reference. I'd never heard them speak, read the fine lines on their faces, listened to their perspectives on their own music. In a way, it's an awe-inspiring experience, even when delivered via a second-rate DVD. Music so often seems to be something from beyond, and at times, it's nice to be reminded of the human element. It's inspiring.

Here's Miles' performance in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival, in four parts. The year was 1970. It's the same performance I watched last night on Miles Electric, and if you've got 40 minutes to spare, it's a historical concert worth taking in. (2004 was the first time a recording of the full performance saw the light of day; not even audio bootlegs were in circulation.)

Personnel: Miles Davis trumpet, Gary Bartz soprano saxophone, Keith Jarrett electric organ, Chick Corea electric piano, Dave Holland bass, Jack DeJohnette drums, Airto Moreira percussion

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Photo by Simon Götz

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Situation with Inflation (Sorta)

Today I realized that I don't really know anything about inflation. Strike that. I know all about forcing air into things to increase their volume. That sounds awful. Strike that, too. What I'm trying to say is, I don't know much about the concept of inflation as it relates to currency and the economic climate. I guess, basically, inflation is an increase in the price of goods and services as a result of a decrease in the purchasing power of a particular form of currency. I've been doing a little research this afternoon, and what actually causes inflation seems difficult to wrap one's head around. Apparently the causes aren't even agreed upon by many financial experts (or, I should say, that in cases where inflation isn't extreme, the potential number of contributing factors is such that it is very difficult to determine exactly what combination is the actual cause of the inflation).

The reason I'm thinking about inflation right now is because of recent news stories detailing the hyperinflation that Zimbabwe is currently experiencing. The Zimbabwean government is about to introduce a $100 trillion bill (300 bucks, U.S. currency). A loaf of bread costs $300 billion. The inflation rate in November was something like 89.7 sextillion percent, which means the price of goods doubles less than every 15 hours. How does something like this happen? Part of what exacerbates hyperinflation is the fact that people immediately exchange whatever money they get for some tangible goods in an effort to squeeze as much value out of their dollars as they can before the purchasing power decreases again. Entire countries get caught in vicious cycles of over-consumption and resource-hoarding in an attempt to stay ahead of the plummeting value of their currency. This can lead to a scarcity in goods that only further drives prices up.

Most transactions occurring in Zimbabwe right now are conducted with foreign currencies. It seems as though most people don't care what sort of money they're getting, as long as it's not the Zimbabwean dollar. How does a market stay afloat with no fixed currency (to the extent you could even say Zimbabwe's economy is "floating")? Surely it must be nightmarish to have to hash through exchange rates for multiple currencies, all of which change day-to-day as inflation makes the Zimbabwean dollar more and more useless. Essentially, what is occurring is called "dollarization," in which a country adopts the currency of another country as its official currency. Except this is illegal in Zimbabwe. So is inflation, for that matter. Goods-providers, under law, are not allowed to raise their prices. But it doesn't stop the train. It keeps barreling down the tracks, seemingly heading for a concrete wall. What exactly does a government do when its currency goes extinct? I find it all kind of brain-scrambling.

Apologies for not offering any clarification on all of this. Because I don't have enough understanding of economics, the best I can do is draw all of these events to your attention so it scrambles your brain, too. Cruel? Maybe. Then again, maybe you fully understand the forces in action here. Then the joke's on me, and the only inflation I should be worrying about is that of my silly little head.

Photos by AP and Reuters, respectively.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nels Cline: Dar He Drone

It seems Nels Cline is finally getting his due. As a guitarist, he's got chops out his ears, a thorough knowledge of guitar technique, a lovely lyrical bent and impeccable ear for note selection, a healthy obsession with electronic effects, and, most importantly, a fearless attitude when it comes to experimentation, improvisation, and self-reinvention. His long-time fans know him primarily as a brilliant, unpredictable jazz man, the greater public knows him as "the dude that plays all the crazy solos" in indie-rock sensations Wilco, and the underbelly of the noise scene recognizes him as an occasional collaborator with Sonic Youth main-man Thurston Moore and a purveyor of ambient and drone music. After years of spreading himself around the experimental music scene, there's finally some weight to his name.

His work in the drone genre is what we're considering today, because it's an aspect of his improvisation and musicianship that many people still aren't aware of. In the past ten years, Cline has made three drone albums with Devin Sarno. Sarno has recorded under his own name and the moniker CRIB for over a decade, focusing on solo-bass improvisation that explores the use of feedback and subsonic frequencies to create ambient music. The multitude of bizarre and ominous noises the two men conjure up is impressive, and often one is left wondering how a guitar and a bass can create such dense, ethereal tonal clouds. The following video, recorded last November in Los Angeles, provides an interesting peak into the creative process.

Nels Cline + Devin Sarno - The Wulf from ZF FILMS on Vimeo.

And for good measure, here's Cline performing with Wilco, letting his 70s guitar-rock side shine brightly:

Wilco - "Impossible Germany" performed live in Benica, Spain, 2007 from WilcoClub

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


A crumbling empire, a life disintegrating. Well, perhaps it seemed an empire to you, your little cluster of accomplishment in Indiana, but even being a millionaire isn't enough to lift you from obscurity in modern America. Still, it was the Dream in a way, and like many under its hallucinatory grip, the power was too tempting. Now: a federal investigation, a divorce, seizure of assets, home searches, angry investors, no number or combination of lies or deflections that could smooth it all over this time. No hope for recovery. In this economy, ("in this economy;" you hate when people preface with that) when you're still ahead and suddenly it looks like you're about to lose it all, how can you ever picture the future where you'll be ahead again? Or even caught up to the average? Not as this persona, not with what fate dictates for this life. But you can beat fate. Free-will. You're sure it's what made you your fortune. (So then, is it what is undoing it?) If Marcus Schrenker is no longer in the picture, if he could only become someone else, then what fate befalls Marcus should no longer concern you. It will be hard for you to start again as someone new, but perhaps it will be easier than starting again as Marc with the tarnished reputation and the wounded pride. You doubt that anyone would take you seriously again. You believe it to be a tragic mistake, but you know it to be the case.

Mostly, though, you know this won't ever work. It's quite clear that accessing your means of starting anew somewhere else, as someone else, will only get you caught as the person you are now, Marc Schrenker, a stupid, fallen man, a laughing-stock, a wounded effigy of all that is wrong with deregulated markets and capitalism and the dirty-underside of the American legacy, to be paraded around and made an example of. They'll be waiting for you to tap your sure-to-be-flagged bank accounts, to swipe those credit cards and reveal your location. You know this can't work. But part of you thinks that it also can't get any worse, that maybe you don't need grand plans of rebirth, you needn't be the proverbial Phoenix, you just need to disappear. Worry about the rest later. For now, vanish. They can dismantle your "life," take apart what you've built piece by piece, but they can't take your life, can't rob you of your freedom. You can't allow them to. Part of you feels embarrassed that such thoughts cross your mind. It seems trite, stereotypically American. "You've ridden the American horse as far as you can, Marc" they'll say, "it's time you get the hell off." How offensive, really. How stupid it would be to invoke American liberties, to don a Patriot's hat while you undermine the establishment.

Yet you plot. It's a mess, you're aware. You've rented a storage unit in Alabama under an assumed name, tucking away in its dark corner a motorcycle, saddlebag-laden, as unassuming a vehicle as any for a multi-millionaire on the run. Hours of restless thought have turned up one obsessive thought: you're going to "die" in a plane crash. It's distracting and intense. You're alarmed that it makes sense. Grisly and macabre, but perfectly suiting your purpose. Accident, suicide; it doesn't matter what history records, it matters that you're sufficiently removed as the end result. You imagine an explosion that obliterates the plane. You imagine Marc Schrenker vaporized, reverted to tiny molecules, pulled apart more thoroughly than any Federal probe could ever hope to manage. You imagine all the anger, which is both directed at you, but also not, because you've left Marc behind when you jump from the plane. In your thoughts, a nameless man emerges from the forest, which hides a deployed parachute, tangled in the underbrush.

And so, the next day, you take to the air in one of your planes, point its nose towards Florida. For a long stetch you fly, the world silent but from the hum of your engines. As you enter Alabaman airspace, you send out a distress call. Your windshield has imploded, you say, you're bleeding profusely. You try to sound panicked, and then marvel at how it's working, the adrenaline driving your voice from out of your chest and into your head, high-pitched and dizzy. A voice on the radio tells you help is being sent, planes are being dispatched to intercept you. You shut off the radio. Lost contact. They should assume the worst. You steel yourself, strapping your parachute on. The plane is set to auto, and you find yourself hesitating at the door. Maybe you just won't open the parachute. Maybe that's what's easiest. Or just stay in the plane, try to sleep, knowing you won't ever have to wake up. It seems cowardly, prideless. You open the cockpit door and jump.

The past 24 hours have been a haze. You blindly march ahead, completing each portion of the plan, but feeling like an automaton. In a way, you really have succeeded in eliminating Marc, because in your fleeting moments of clarity, you're pained by the absurdity of all this. The man in your mind did in fact emerge from the forest, but not so much born anew, just the same man as before, only now wet and feeling a little more pathetic. You remember knocking on a door in the night, then the blinding glare of the ER, then the beams of light chasing each other across the ceiling of the police cruiser as it moved through the night, the oblivious officers depositing you at a hotel just down the street from your motorcycle, such a blinding red it nearly glowed in the dark storage unit. The wind as you ride is a bit chilly, despite the fact that you're quickly approaching the Florida border. It hits you: your plan has run out of steps. You're just riding and tired. You checked for news with your Blackberry, and you learned of how your plane nearly struck some houses when it finally came sputtering down. The realization that you could have killed someone, that things have blown this far off course, hung heavily around you like a cloak, or at times, like an unbearable weight pressing on your chest. You sent an email to a close friend, insisting that the crash really was an accident, but you immediately regretted sending it as soon as it disappeared from your screen. Now you just ride. The tears in your eyes are just from the wind, you'd say, if anyone was there. You'll have to get used to being alone. This is only the beginning. This has just begun, and already, you know you can't handle it.

As you pass a sign welcoming you across the state line, you realize the flaw in your original plan. You think, the mistake was dying a symbolic death. The mistake was in assuming that I could both erase and preserve myself. Tonight, you decide, you'll correct the error. The fix is simple enough.

The tale continues:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Liberated Drums

"'Free' doesn't mean you can just do what you want--rather, that you are responsible for your own limits." -Fred Frith

I mentioned Jon Faelt's drumming in the brief blurb I wrote about Bobo Stenson's Cantando in my Top Albums of 2008 entry, and I can't stop thinking about it lately. Drumming in general, really. Must have been all that Guitar Hero World Tour I played last night. I should be specific. I'm more interested in two things: free drumming, and in the ways a skilled drummer can imply a melody without having access to the full spectrum of chromatic notes.

A word of clarification regarding free drumming: "free" does not imply that drummers of the school are only banging on a drumkit with no abandon, that it takes no talent to be a "free" drummer. Arguably, it's more difficult than standard types of drumming, and many free drummers possess a stellar rhythmic sense and have completely mastered traditional styles of drumming. What's remarkable about the best free drummers is how drastically they alter the musical climate when they are freed from the responsibility of keeping time for the rest of the musicians. When done right, free styles of drumming are highly musical and lyrical, careening from idea to idea in an attempt to dramatically frame the movements of the other players. As Lewis Porter writes in the liner notes to the reissue of Coltrane's Ascension, the idea is to "mov[e] away from playing over a steady beat" and instead to aim "for a general churning pulse of fast or slow." The clatter of Han Bennink or Hamid Drake comes to mind for many, but the style needn't be so busy or violent. This is why Faelt's drumming is remarkable for someone so young and new to the international jazz scene; his level of restraint and his very subtle, unorthodox ideas are quick to gain the listener's attention. You starting listening closely to what he's doing because he's interesting, not because he's dominating the proceedings.

Check out Faelt's freewheeling drumming in the right corner.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's "Willow Trees Bend" is also driving my interest. The song features sparse chords that are strummed so loosely as to be nearly arpeggiated, coupled with a quiet, very free drumming element that makes the chords sound as though they're breathing, pushing the song along in swells of sound, or at times, lending it a gentle tumbling quality, like water splashing over rocks. It's an arresting effect that sets the song apart from the rest of Lie Down in the Light. Or I think of Chris Corsano's contribution to the massive title track on Six Organs of Admittance's School of the Flower, heated to boiling beneath Ben Chasny's acoustic plucking and ominous Eastern drones. In other realms of music, the free percussionist Vincent de Rougin markedly elevated the tension in the dark, bassy drone of Æthenor when he was added to the line-up for last year's Betimes Black Cloudmasses. And though there are countless examples in the various permutations of jazz, it is when free drumming is used in these different contexts that I find it most exciting. Sadly, they're few and far between.

Chris Corsano playing in the Flower-Corsano Duo (Mick Flower is playing a shahi baaja, a Japanese electric dulcimer)

My other drumming fixation is simpler and more prevalent. Like I said before, I enjoy when particularly musical drummers are able to imply the melody of a song through careful selection of the elements used in their drumming patterns. You can hear Ron Carter's bass line in Billy Cobham's drumming long before Carter starts playing on the live version of "Red Clay" on the reissue of Red Clay, and there was a video going around the internet a while ago that, despite the smug drummer, documented some particularly effective drumming to accompany the MIDI songs from Super Mario Bros. 3. Really, with a healthy mix of pocket and ostinato drumming, any good drummer should aim to highlight the melody while keeping the beat, but it unfortunately is not always the case. That's where we bassists come in. Although, looking back to the rhythmic freedom exhibited in the first type of drumming I discussed, bassists aren't always satisfied with being a non-melodic anchor, either.

Top photo of Jon Faelt by Aleksandar Zec
Han Bennink photo by Miemo

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fragmented Thoughts on Algorithms

An algorithm is simply a finite set of unambiguous instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal. There are three key factors to algorithms that must be satisfied in order for the process to be legitimate. These are:

1. Substrate Neutrality.
The result of the algorithm is dependent upon the logical structure of the steps, not by the materials used to complete the process.

2. Underlying Mindlessness.
The series of steps must be utterly simply, in that no judgments, decisions, or intuitions are required for steps to be completed correctly.

3. Guaranteed Results.
If all of the steps are followed accurately, the algorithm must do whatever it is that it does. (This seems redundant, but is important.)

The point of interest is this: whatever it is a given algorithm does, it doesn't have to have a conceivable use or value. People are accustomed to considering such systems from a perspective of interest or utility, and many don't realize that there are some algorithms that are so irregular or pointless that there is no way possible way to articulate just what it is they are for. As Daniel Dennett says, "they just do what they do and they do it every time." For the majority of people, it's simply not worth the effort to identify and understand an algorithm that has no apparent purpose.

And so: it is interesting to wonder how many of the phenomena we experience in the world are controlled by such seemingly useless algorithms. How many useless processes does it take working in concert to produce something that does have apparent value and/or purpose? And would each useless algorithm simply constitute a single step in a larger one? As I said, it would be difficult to even recognize such systems, as human thought patterns generally aren't likely to devote much power into handling inherently pointless processes, especially if the series of steps required to produce the useless (or more accurately, the apparently useless) result is staggeringly large.

I initially encountered the discussion of algorithms in Daniel Dennett's book on evolution, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Everything above ties into evolution and natural selection as follows: the mistaken assumption is that natural selection is an algorithm with the intended result of producing us. For opponents of evolution, it is difficult to view the theory of evolution outside of its relevance to the origins of human design, and thus they falsely classify the process of natural selection solely as an alternative explanation for the existence of human beings. While natural selection may occur as the result of a series of algorithms, it is erroneous to assume that those algorithms must specifically be for something, that there is a certain meaningful goal to their process.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Something I Was Thinking About Several Months Ago But Am Not Posting Until Now, And Only Out Of Boredom

"Hell is the place we don't know we're in."

In Don DeLillo's The Names, one of the characters considers this quote, wondering "Is hell a lack of awareness? Once you know you're there, is this your escape?"

At first this seemed to be a terrifying paradox. But if you don't know you're in hell, how bad can it be? And when you do suddenly realize that you've been living in hell, that precise moment is the one in which you are released, so you never gain the ability to reflect on what your punishment in hell means or repent for your wrong-doings. At that point you're now free, and didn't recognize your punishment as such while it was occurring. So really, how much of a motivating force can hell be? The only way you can perceive it is through memory! If, when recollecting, things didn't seem that bad, then the knowledge that you had been in hell isn't likely to drastically alter your moral choices or influence the future course of your life. And presumably, if after that point you were to continue on in a manner that warrants your return in hell, you'd once again simply not realize you were there. It also isn't enough to deter evil behavior for those who have yet to visit, because who would care about the consequences of their actions if they're not going to be aware of their punishment while it's occurring?

Perhaps DeLillo's characters are experiencing some sort of Projection bias: they encounter people in situations or states-of-mind that surely would feel like hell to them, and mistakenly assume that the ignorance of those involved must be part of the tragic package.

Photo by Patrick Doheny.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Disintegrating Reality

Frozen Ledge #3 - Oil - 2007

Since I've been employed at the State House, the art displays maintained by the Maine Arts Commission have become one of my favorite parts of the building's decor. A large amount of space on the first floor of the building and additional areas on the second floor outside of the Governor's office are home to a variety of work created by Maine artists. Every few months, one series is taken down, and new work is brought in to replace it. Often, the displays are a mixture of pieces by several different artists, but the most recent display contains paintings by a single artist, Belfast resident Dennis Pinette.

Pinette states that he likes to "push realism to the edge of disintegration." It's a strange claim that takes on eerie significance when you finally see his art. I find myself stopping to look at it nearly every time I pass. His paintings possess a quality that is difficult to articulate, existing in some surreal blur of intense light and brooding darkness. I decided to take some photos to post here because I wanted to share his excellent work, but upon reviewing them, I found that the energy and vibrancy of the paintings was lost in the reproductions. Even in searching online, examples of his work seem lifeless compared to the originals.

I've done my best to adjust the contrast and saturation in these photos to try to convey, even in the smallest of ways, the color and motion captured in Pinette's work. My real hope is that people in the Augusta area who read this will take the time to visit the State House and see the exhibition, or, for those who have seen the paintings briefly or in passing, that they will take the time to stop and appreciate Pinette's unique and entrancing landscapes. You really do need to see the originals to get the full effect.

“The elusive geometries of fire and water in motion are timelessly hypnotic and transcendent. As ultimate solvents their powers are absolute in determining life and death.”
-Dennis Pinette

Burning Sky #2 - Oil - 2008

Woods in Flames #2 - Oil - 2007

Searsmont Woods Moody Mountain - Oil - 2003

PLEASE NOTE: All work is by Dennis Pinette. The reproductions here are my own photographs taken of his original work. I take no credit for what you see here, and only wish to share what I have found so that others might appreciate it, too.

Dennis Pinette at the Caldbeck Gallery Website
Dennis Pinette on the Yankee Magazine blog
Dennis Pinette on the Phoenix website

Monday, January 5, 2009

Top 20 Albums of 2008: Part IV

The final countdown! Hold on to your hats! Clutch your children to your bosom! Repent! The end is nigh!

PLEASE NOTE: All tracks are for preview purposes only. Support the artists you love by buying their work!

5. Brad Mehldau Trio - Live (Nonesuch)
Brad Mehldau is one of the young superstars of jazz, frequently playing sold-out, multiple-night live events that display his impressive physical dexterity and encyclopedic knowledge of musical technique. Part of what makes Mehldau so appealing are his sophisticated reinterpretations of modern pop songs, in which he often turns their harmonic structures inside-out, drawing out a depth and beauty one might never have known existed within them. Live is an enormous, double-disc document of the Mehldau live phenomenon, featuring many of Mehldau's own compositions alongside erudite readings of jazz standards and pop material, including blazing renditions of Oasis' "Wonderwall" and Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." Though I hate to gush, Mehldau's musicality really is stunning, and while bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard are impressive musicians in their own right, as when describing another Mehldau rhythm section from several years back, Richard Cook and Brian Morton had it right when they said that they are "inevitably overshadowed" by Mehldau's formidable display of talent. At the cost of a standard CD, this double album is one of the best buys of the year. Hell, the tracks "Wonderwall" and "Secret Beach" alone are worth the purchase.

Track listing: Disc I: 1. Introduction (00:15) 2. Wonderwall (8:44) 3. Ruby's Rub (13:08) 4. O Que Será (10:38) 5. B-Flat Waltz (9:11) 6. Black Hole Sun (23:31) 7. The Very Thought of You (12:59) Disc II: 1. Buddha Realm (12:00) 2. Fit Cat (10:40) 3. Secret Beach (11:36) 4. C.T.A. (16:16) 5. More Than You Know (12:09) 6. Countdown (14:52)

Personnel: Brad Mehldau piano; Larry Grenadier bass; Jeff Ballard drums

Download the track "Wonderwall"

4. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Lie Down in the Light (Drag City)
Bonnie 'Prince" Billy's Is it the Sea? already saw a spot in this Top 20 countdown, but it wasn't Oldham's best of the year. It was his studio effort, Lie Down in the Light, that was truly a revelation. Many people consider Oldham's 2006 album The Letting Go to be his strongest work to date, an album that set itself apart from the rest of his discography with warm, sleepy arrangements and the extended presence of Dawn McCarthy's unique backing vocals. (It also contains my favorite Billy tune, "Strange Form of Life"). Lie Down in the Light captizalizes and improves upon all of these changes, and livens the mood in the process. Oldham tapped a sizeable cast of Nashville musicians for the recording of the album, and throughout are pleasing harmonized vocals, charming ragtime piano and folksy fiddle, and occasionally some real head-turning touches, like the beautiful clarinet solo in "For Every Field There's A Mole." And for Oldham's part, things just seem to be getting better. His singing is strong and clear and the songs themselves are among the best he's penned in an already prolific career. A recent profile of Oldham in The New Yorker contained a quote that claimed that he was the most likely underground musician to sneak his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a thought that stopped my eyes on the page as I was reading. At first it seemed like flattering hyperbole, but then I started thinking: is it really so preposterous? Beware, his highly anticipated album set to come out in a few months, may very well give us a clear answer.

Track listing: 1. Easy Does It (3:54) 2. You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes) (3:56) 3. So Everyone (4:02) 4. For Every Field There's A Mole (3:20) 5. Keep Eye On Other's Gain (4:36) 6. You Want That Picture (3:51) 7. Missing One (2:48) 8. What's Missing Is (4:28) 9. Where is the Puzzle? (3:50) 10. Lie Down in the Light (4:09) 11. Willow Trees Bend (4:08) 12. I'll Be Glad (2:44)

Personnel: Will Oldham vocals, guitar; Shahzad Ismaily percussion, banjo, piano, electric guitar, row of wrenches, laptop organ; Emmett Kelly guitar, harmony vocals, recorder, shrooti box; Paul Oldham bass; Ashley Webber vocals; Roy Agee trombone; Tony Crow piano and organ; Glen Duncan fiddle; Pete Finney pedal steel; Ben Martin percussion; Dennis Solee clarinet; Rod Fletcher, John Ryles, Marty Slayton voices

Download the track "For Every Field There's A Mole"

3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Mute)
Nick Cave is another giant of the music world that I only just recently acquianted myself with. I had heard a few tracks from The Lyre of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues when it was released a few years back, but for whatever reason they didn't really stick with me, leaving me still with no clear picture of Cave's music. Honestly, I'm not sure what it was that made me decide to buy Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, but I did, and I was hooked. There's something so distinctive about the atmosphere Cave invokes with his music, some cryptic way that his intelligent lyrics, driving rhythms, and the swirling haze of Warren Ellis's musical contributions unite into a singular vision that makes the Bad Seeds not only immediately recognizable, but also sets them head and shoulders above the rest of the rock'n'roll world. The rockers (see: title track, "Lie Down Here," "We Call Upon the Author") rock harder than Cave has rocked in years (excepting Grinderman), and the slower, moodier tracks are as good or better than the highlights from Abattoir Blues. "Hold On To Yourself" and "Moonland" are Cave at his haunting best. Dig, combined with Cave's recent scoring efforts, are case in point that Cave, now aged 50, is just getting warmed up.

Track listing: 1. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (4:12) 2. Today's Lesson (4:41) 3. Moonland (3:54) 4. Night of the Lotus Eaters (4:53) 5. Albert Goes West (3:32) 6. We Call Upon the Author (5:12) 7. Hold On To Yourself (5:51) 8. Lie Down Here (And By My Girl) (4:58) 9. Jesus of the Moon (3:22) 10. Midnight Man (5:07) 11. More News From Nowhere (7:58)

Personnel: Nick Cave vocals, organ, piano, tambourine, sleigh bells, toms, harmonica, electric guitar, vibra-slap; Martyn P. Casey bass; Thomas Wydler brushed snare, shaker, tambourine, drums, hand drums; Warren Ellis viola, loops, Fender Mandocaster, tenor guitar, maracas, 12-string lute, drum machine, flute, mandolin; Mick Harvey electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, organ; Jim Sclavunos drums, bongos, cowbell, cuica, congas, finger cymbals, shaker, maracas, tambourine, sleigh bells; James Johnston organ, electric guitar

Download the track "Hold On To Yourself"

2. Bennie Maupin Quartet - Early Reflections (Cryptogrammophone)
For several decades now, Bennie Maupin has doned the hat of sideman-extraordinaire. The bass clarinetest is best known for his work with Miles Davis' early electric bands, his role in Herbie Hancock's pioneering Headhunters ensemble, and one strange, gorgeous ECM album in the early 70s entitled The Jewel in the Lotus. Since the 70s, Maupin continued on a quiet career arc, faithfully recording as a sideman and session musician but releasing no albums as a leader. In 2006, he returned with the Cryptogrammophone release Penumbra. The album was so good, people were puzzled as to why Maupin remained silent as a leader for so long. His latest, Early Reflections, is even better. Maupin seems to have been made for the bass clarinet, as he exhibits remarkable control in even the lowest registers of the instrument. His lines and runs are thoughtful and melodic, indicative of his maturity and experience as a musician. But we all know we can count on Maupin for a stellar contribution. What truly puts Early Reflections ahead of so many albums released this year is the backing band of young Polish musicians Maupin has surrounded himself with. There is an interplay and communication between the members that would be impressive with a group that had been playing together for several decades, let alone just a few years. Pianist Michal Tokaj is a name to watch: his contributions here hopefully will garner him some of the recognition he deserves. He plays with the lyricism and restraint of someone twice his age, and it is Tokaj that serves as the unifying anchor of the quartet. In all, subtle, radiant stuff. Here's to you, Bennie.

Track listing: 1. Within Reach (2:37) 2. Escondido (7:47) 3. Inside the Shadows (2:23) 4. ATMA (8:57) 5. Ours Again (3:51) 6. The Jewel in the Lotus (10:13) 7. Black Ice (3:08) 8. Tears (7:48) 9. Not Later Than Now (2:38) 10. Early Reflections (5:46) 11. Inner Sky (7:14) 12. Prophet's Motif (4:24) 13. Spirits of the Tatras (9:04)

Personnel: Bennie Maupin bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, alto flute; Michal Tokaj piano; Michal Baranski bass; Lukasz Zyta drums, percussion; Hania Chowaniec-Rybka voice

Download the track "Escondido"

1. Nik Bärtsch's Ronin - Holon (ECM)
"Ritual groove" and "Zen funk" are two descriptors that Nik Bärtsch has used to describe his music. "Zen funk" I don't like so much, but "ritual groove" seems to do it justice. Holon is hypnotic and addictive. Though it uses jazz instrumentation, it's not really jazz, as most of the album is meticulously composed by Bärtsch and there is little room for improvisation (but he has left more than on past outings). Rhythm is the name of the game here. Bärtsch's compositions are not concerned with melody or harmony, but with intense rhythmic interaction between instruments. He builds funky, repetitive grooves by layering instruments, each subtly shifting its line as the pattern continues, often in ways that build unexpected tension. But it's when Bärtsch lets these taut grooves finally snap that things really get awesome. The rhythmic chasms the band can open at will are mindblowing, expert uses of tense-and-release dynamics that make you want to just...boogie. Naturally, all of this wouldn't be able to take off without an exceptional group of musicians. Björn Meyer absolutely sings on his 6-string bass, and Sha's bass clarinets add bulk the low-end, often weaving together with Meyer and Bärtsch to create triple-bassline tapestries. Really, it's hard to capture what Bärtsch is doing in words. I stumbled upon Holon relatively late in the year, but within two weeks I had listened to it maybe two dozen times, and I still find small touches and tiny details that amaze me. But what do I love the most about Holon? That it's one of the best examples of someone taking huge musical risks, trying something new and exciting and likely to be misunderstood, and succeeding so smashingly that the only word that comes to mind is "genius." It's taken Bärtsch several years and a handful of albums to reach this point, but now, his vision realized, it really is true genius.

Track listing: 1. Modul 42 (6:28) 2. Modul 42_27 (14:51) 3. Modul 39_8 (8:00) 4. Modul 46 (7:16) 5. Modul 45 (9:41) 6. Modul 44 (9:23)

Personnel: Nik Bärtsch piano; Sha bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, alto sax; Björn Meyer bass; Kaspar Rast drums; Andi Pupato percussion

Download the track "Modul 46"

Top 20 Albums of 2008: Part III

Today: Numbers 10 through 6! Let's roll!

PLEASE NOTE: All tracks are for preview purposes only! Support the artists you love by buying their work!

10. Bar Kokhba Sextet - Lucifer: Book of Angels, Vol. 10 (Tzadik)
It speaks to the power of Bar Kokhba's music that the ensemble, having released only three albums in the past 10 years, is one of the best-selling outfits that tackle John Zorn's music (such groups are usually noted for their prolificacy). The Book of Angels entry is the Bar Kokhba Sextet's first studio work since 1998, and it finds the band playing tighter than ever, whipping out wonderfully exotic takes on Zorn's Masada compositions, which are based on Jewish scales and sonorities from both Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions. Of particular note in this session is Marc Ribot, his playing both urgent and lyrical, one of his best showings in recent memory. Though his musical palette is much wider than many other contemporary guitarists, he seems especially at home in the company of this particular group. While I still prefer the immediacy and spontaneity of the 50th Birthday Celebration live recordings, Lucifer is a pleasing addition to the Bar Kokhba canon and is certainly in the running as one of the best releases in the Book of Angels series, as well.

Track listing: 1. Sother (5:59) 2. Dalquiel (6:08) 3. Zazel (3:23) 4. Gediel (6:13) 5. Rahal (3:50) 6. Zechriel (7:55) 7. Azbugah (3:02) 8. Mehalalel (9:54) 9. Quelamia (4:59) 10. Abdiel (3:25)

Personnel: Cyro Baptista percussion; Joey Baron drums; Greg Cohen bass; Mark Feldman violin; Erik Friedlander cello; Marc Ribot guitar

Download the track "Sother"

9. Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (Southern)
Earth are in an interesting position in the metal world, having essentially invented drone metal in the early 90s, only to disappear and let their followers (most notably sunnO))) ) attract attention and garner accolades for its unique sound. Earth didn't stay hidden though, and when they returned after nearly a decade-long hiatus, their sound had changed quite drastically. The music was still slow in tempo and drawn out over long swaths of time, but it was spare and even more economical, not nearly as heavy, at times lacking distortion at all, and it had a hint of country twang that made it sound like a glacial Morricone soundtrack. In the three years since their reappearance, Earth has worked diligently toward fully fleshing out this new approach, and The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull represents the apex of that vision. To put it succinctly, the album is just beautiful. The sound is still deep, full in the bass register, but it's not abrasive or percussive like metal, instead delivered as a rich, healthy vibration that's more relaxing than anything else. Every element is carefully considered and nothing is used to excess; each guitar chord or splash of Hammond is delivered in a deliberate, measured way that works towards building a lush, dense atmosphere, but without becoming overbearing or murky. Carlson has indicated Terry Riley is one of his inspirations, and I think Mr. Riley would approve.

Track listing: 1. Omens and Portents I: The Driver (9:08) 2. Rise to Glory (5:47) 3. Miami Morning Coming Down II (Shine) (8:01) 4. Engine of Ruin (6:28) 5. Omens and Portents II: Carrion Crow (8:04) 6. Hung From the Moon (7:44) 7. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (8:15)

Personnel: Dylan Carlson electric guitar; Adrienne Davies drums, percussion; Steve Moore grand piano, Hammond organ, Wurlitzer piano; Don McGreevy bass guitar, double-bass; Bill Frisell electric guitar (1, 4, 5)

Download the track "Omens and Portents I: The Driver"

8. Bobo Stenson Trio - Cantando (ECM)
Bobo Stenson is one of the most revered modern jazz pianists, having recorded as a sideman and a leader for over 30 years. Cantando served as my first introduction to Stenson, and I've been ravenously seeking out his back catalog in the few months since. Honestly, if I had found Cantando a little sooner in the year, it very well may have placed higher on this list. It's an album so bursting with ideas, so expertly executed, so illustrative of the magic that can happen when musicians are keyed in to one another, that gaining a full appreciation of its entirety seems a herculean task. Stenson and bassist Anders Jormin have played together for most of their respective careers, and share a musical symbiotic relationship: each anticipates and complements the other in a manner that suggests they share a single mind. Since long-time trio drummer Jon Christensen passed away a few years ago, his seat has been filled by Paul Motian and now the young Jon Faelt, who is absolutely breathtaking. He subscribes to a Motian-style drumming philosophy, serving not so much to keep time, but by subtly accenting the lead players (Jormin's role is hardly that of a mere rhythmic anchor). Faelt's contribution is by far the best example of this style drumming I've encountered, and I think I even prefer Faelt's drumming to Motian's. The Stenson/Jormin organism, when taken with Faelt's new energy, results in a tremendous collection of tracks that embody the best elements of free music and creative interpretation of standards and source music.

Track listing: 1. Olivia (6:39) 2. Song of Ruth (6:42) 3. Wooden Church (7:01) 4. M (8:00) 5. Chiquilin de Bachin (8:04) 6. Pages (13:40) 7. Don's Corapiece (5:09) 8. A Fixed Goal (4:13) 9. Love I've Found You (3:13) 10. Liebesode (8:36) 11. Song of Ruth, var. (6:48)

Personnel: Bobo Stenson piano; Anders Jormin double-bass; Jon Faelt drums

the track "Wooden Church"

7. Bohren & der Club of Gore - Dolores (Ipecac)
Bohren & der Club of Gore is a band comprised of a bunch of metal heads. The thing is, almost 20 years ago, they decided they didn't want to play metal. What they've steadily developed in the years since is an arresting, doom-metal-slow style of jazz that pushes the boundaries of both tempo and minimalism. Bohren's frugal use of notes places great emphasis on every musical decision, and the economy of their sound combined with the timbre of their instruments of choice makes for a haunting, beautiful listen. While some of Bohren's past albums deliberately strove to create a creepy ambiance, it seems with Dolores the band is no longer concerned with being scary, merely with making the best possible music they can in the style they have pioneered. There are still a few chilling cuts, though, largely thanks to the ominous samples utilized in some of their Mellotron lines. Also of note is the shorter song lengths this time around, which suprisingly doesn't detract from the slow, steady crescendo building they've employed in the past.

Track listing: 1. Staub (7:51) 2. Karin (3:38) 3. Schwarze Biene (Black Maja) (8:12) 4. Unkerich (5:31) 5. Still Am Sresen (3:59) 6. Welk (6:19) 7. Von Schanälbeln (3:57) 8. Urgelblut (6:13) 9. Faul (5:56) 10. Welten (6:54)

Personnel: Thorsten Benning drums, percussion; Christoph Clöser Fender Rhodes, vibraphone, saxophone; Morten Gass 8-string bass, Fender Rhodes; Robin Rodenberg contrabass, fretless bass

Download the track "Staub"

6. Charles Lloyd Quartet - Rabo de Nube (ECM)
Charles Lloyd is another jazz legend that I first caught wind of this year, with Rabo de Nube being released in conjunction with his 70th birthday. A live set, the album showcases Lloyd's new backing band of fiery young musicians. It quickly becomes clear that their youthful exuberance is required to keep pace with Lloyd, who plays with a vigor and passion that matches that of his classic 60s output. Drummer Eric Harland is particularly notable on this session, as well as Jason Moran, who has attracted quite a lot of critical attention as a leader of his own band in the past several years. For the most part his piano-playing is in lock-step with Lloyd's vision, though there are portions of a few of his solos that are occasionally aural stumbles, as though the wild drive of the music simply broke free from Moran's control. It's not enough to detract from the overall brilliance of the set, though, and Moran's got big shoes to fill in any case: Lloyd's consistently surrounded himself with high caliber piantists. His groups have included the likes of Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, Geri Allen, and Brad Mehldau. Lloyd has been a consistently powerful voice in the jazz world for over 40 years now. Charles, we hear you loud and clear.

Track listing: 1. Prometheus (14:42) 2. Migration of Spirit (10:14) 3. Booker's Garden (14:32) 4. Ramanujan (11:38) 5. La Colline de Monk (4:01) 6. Sweet Georgia Bright (12:16) 7. Rabo de Nube (7:36)

Personnel: Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, alto flute, tarogato; Jason Moran piano; Reuben Rogers double-bass; Eric Harland drums

Download the track "Prometheus"

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Top 20 Albums of 2008: Part II

Let's continue the count down, shall we? Here's the next five entries in my "Top 20 Albums of 2008 list:"

PLEASE NOTE: All tracks are for preview purposes only. Support the artists you love by buying their work!
15. Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra - Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)
Bill Dixon is an enigmatic figure in the history of free jazz. He's generally allotted the status of "legend," but for someone who lent such a helping hand to the development of avant-garde jazz, there's a considerable lack of recordings documenting his contributions, especially compared to his contemporaries. This recording, however, isn't one that slips past unnoticed. Dixon, now 82, joined up with the relatively young Exploding Star Orchestra collective for a lengthy showcase that exhibits two of Dixon's compositions (the "Entrances" tracks) and an extended performance dedicated to Dixon himself that was written by band leader Rob Mazurek. The music contained within is consistently exciting and inventive, one of the best examples of large-scale structured improv I've ever encountered. The band does it all: orchestrated themes, mindless free jazz freak-outs, shifting textural explorations, crescendi, decrescendi, shouts and whispers. And heading it all is Dixon, who squeezes all manner of belches and squeals out of his trumpet, even occasionally using electronic effects to alter his tone. In all it's an impressive showing, not only for the aging Dixon, but for the entire ensemble. It's to their credit that such a large group never dissolves into the muddied mess that mars many big band free jazz endeavors. The only misstep is the strange Hawkwind-esque spoken word bit at the beginning of "Constellations for Innerlight Projections," but given the strength of the music surrounding it, it's a minor and totally forgivable gaffe.

Track listing: 1. Entrances/One (18:10) 2. Constellations for Innerlight Projections (for Bill Dixon) (24:13) 3. Entrances/Two (18:11)

Personnel: Bill Dixon trumpet, composer; Rob Mazurek cornet, composer; Nicole Mitchell flute; Matt Bauder bass clarinet, tenor sax; Jeb Bishop trombone; Josh Berman cornet; Jeff Parker guitar; Jim Baker piano; Jason Adesewicz vibraphone, tubular bells; Matthew Lux bass guitar; Jason Ajemian double-bass; Mike Reed drums, timpani; John Herndon drums; Damon Locks voice (2)

Download the track "Entrances/One"

14. Brightblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin (Matador)
Reverb is a wonderful thing. (Well, most of the time. Don't ask me my opinion on Grouper). What makes reverb even better? When you slather it all over slow, groovy Fender Rhodes lines. And then bolster those lines with bottomless bass, chiming percussion, soulful harmonies and chill lyrics. Brightblack Morning Light specialize in all of this. They don't mind stretching out, and they'll ride a groove until it unravels, then find a new groove to jam on. Motion to Rejoin sounds almost exactly like the band's 2006 self-titled debut, but as far as I see it, they didn't really do much wrong the first time around. While the genre term "stoner rock" is generally associated with riff-heavy hard rock, it probably is better suited to Brightblack's sound. It's got groove, it's got soul, and it's got all the time in the world to let everyone know. Yeeeeeah, man.

Track listing: 1. Introduction (00:43) 2. Hologram Buffalo (5:18) 3. Gathered Years (8:01) 4. Oppressions Each (3:27) 4. Another Reclaimation (7:06) 5. A Rainbow Aims (9:46) 6. Summer Hoof (5:28) 7. Past A Weatherbeaten Fencepost (6:49) 8. When Beads Spell Power Leaf (2:44)

Personnel: Naybob Shineywater vocals, electric guitar, Clavinet, vibraphone; Rachael Hughes vocals, piano, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone; Matthew Davis clarinet, saxophone, trombone; Meara O'Reilly, Ann McCrary, Regina McCrary vocals; Windy Dankoff flute, bass flute; Matt Henry Cunitz celesta, pump organ, Mellotron; Jessica Ruffins bass guitar; Otto Hauser drums, percussion

Download the track "Gathered Years"

13. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Is It the Sea? (Domino)
I didn't fall in love with Will Oldham's music the first time I heard it, but over the years he's slowly taken a place as one of my favorite musicians. He's a tremendous songwriter whose songs always seem to take off despite Oldham's vocal limitations, and their simple musical structures allow Oldham to reinvent them frequently and successfully in live settings. Is It the Sea? is a wonderful collection of Oldham's work, with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy captured at a live performance backed by the Irish folk band Harem Scarem and omnipresent out-drummer Alex Neilson. The arrangements transform Oldham's tunes into dreamy, droney Irish folk dirges, with warm violins, female vocal harmonies, and delicate acoustic guitars. The instrumentation does wonders for some Oldham classics, shining new light on tracks like "Cursed Sleep" and "My Home is the Sea." The group also doesn't pass up the opportunity to tackle some traditional Irish folk tunes, and the reading of "Molly Bawn" may very well be the highlight of the album.

Track listing: 1. Minor Place (4:41) 2. Love Comes to Me (4:19) 3. Bed is for Sleeping (3:52) 4. Arise Therefore (3:25) 5. Wolf Among Wolves (4:45) 6. Ain't You Wealthy? Ain't You Wise? (4:47) 7. Cursed Sleep (7:52) 8. Molly Bawn (7:33) 9. Birch Ballad (4:46) 10. New Partner (4:39) 11. Is It the Sea? (6:31) 12. My Home is the Sea (7:32) 13. Master and Everyone (3:31)

Personnel: Will Oldham vocals, guitar; Inge Thompson piano accordion; Sarah McFadyen fiddle; Nuala Kennedy flute, woodwinds; Eilidh Shaw fiddle, vocals; Ross Martin guitar; Alex Neilson drums, percussion

Download the track "Cursed Sleep"
12. Ocean - Pantheon of the Lesser (Important)
When I first heard Ocean's Here Where Nothing Grows at my university's radio station in 2005, I was blown away. It seemed that the band had tapped in to the very essence of the genre of doom metal, and in stripping it back to its barest essentials had managed to rejuvenate the staling genre and make a name for themselves in the process. The fact that amazed and excited me the most, however, was the fact that Ocean was from my home state of Maine. Nothing much ever originates in Maine, and it's the last place one would expect to find one of the most crushing, uncompromising, molasses-slow doom metal band the heavy music world ever know. Three long years later, the band finally delivered their sophomore effort, and while not quite as good as Here Where Nothing Grows, Pantheon of the Lesser is a tremendous statement from the purveyors of all things doom. There's something mesmerizing about the band's sound, and despite largely leaving my heavy metal years behind, Ocean is a group I'll always be willing to give the time of day. \m/

Track listing: 1. The Beacon (35:50) 2. Of the Lesser (23:04)

Personnel: Candy vocals, guitar; John Lennon guitar; Reuben J Little bass; Eric Brackett drums; Yosh vocals (2)

Download the track "Of the Lesser"

11. Howlin Rain - Magnificent Fiend (American)
I first gained an appreciation for Ethan Miller with Comets on Fire's 2006 album Avatar. Its tremendous swirling windstorm of psychedelic rock caught hold of me on the very first listen, leaving me exhilarated and breathless. As much as I love Comets on Fire, when I found out Miller was also channeling his energy into a project that wasn't intent on leaving the amps turned up into the red, I was intrigued. Howlin Rain became the bluesier, more progressive outlet for Miller's endless psychedelic obsession. The first Howlin Rain album was a little messy and still had loud Comets-style guitar, but with Magnificent Fiend, Miller and Co. seem to have ironed out most of the bumps. The increased presense of Hammond organ and Wurlitzer piano lends a heady, retro vibe to the proceedings, and Miller's scratchy vocals are brought closer to the surface, finally freed from the bath of reverb they're usually subjected to. In all, it's a fitting tribute to the fringe rock sound of the 70s, and given that Howlin Rain was picked up by bigtime label American Recordings, it seems it's a sound the people want to hear.

Track listing: 1. Requiem (00:55) 2. Dancers at the End of Time (5:56) 3. Calling Lightning, Pt. 2 (5:11) 4. Lord Have Mercy (6:36) 5. Nomads (5:06) 6. El Rey (7:09) 7. Goodbye Ruby (7:52) 8. Riverboat (6:04)

Personnel: Ethan Miller vocals, lead guitar; Ian Gradek bass; Mike Jackson rhythm guitar; Joel Robinow keyboards, horns, vocals; Garett Goddard drums

Download the track "El Rey"

Up next: Part III