A local rapper creates a strange brew of psych, kraut and prog music and we bid farewell to jazz legend Charlie Haden, it's Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly music segment.
Chris Martins from Spin Magazine and music critic Steve Hochman are in on the ones and twos this week.
Chris Martins' Picks
Summary: Bleachers is the first side project to emerge from the world-conquering, Grammy-stacking, New Jersey band - Fun. They are a band of dudes from other bands in the first place — singer Nate Ruess came from the Format; multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost from Anathallo; and guitarist Jack Antonoff used to front his own group, Steel Train. Now he's back as Bleachers.
The new LP is Strange Desire and it's out today.
On the track "I Wanna Get Better," if you strain you'll hear a little bit of Steel Train's earnestness — a kinda of rootsy earnest heartland rock for the emo set. But also, it's a lot of loud, unabashed, rock-flavored pop. I had the chance to visit Antonoff in the studio while he was finishing the record, and he said he wasn't interested in making something that seemed like a refutation of the massive music fun. makes. So many side projects sound like apologies for the success of the main thing, but the men of fun have never been shy about being good at pop. Now that's not to say Bleachers doesn't have its own sound.
Strange Desire features a couple of guiding sonic lights. On the one hand, it's both the soundtracks and character-driven world of John Hughes. Which is not a surprise coming from Antonoff, the boyfriend of 'Girls' star/creator Lena Dunham. (She directed the video for that song we heard as well.) He even brought in an '80s icon to help out in the studio: Vince Clarke, of Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Yaz co-produces some songs. Bleachers' hyper-modern side, on the other hand, comes in part from co-producer John Hill. He's worked with M.I.A., Phantogram, and Shakira, and his sample-strong approach complements Antonoff's own micro-chopped cut-and-paste approach to building songs.
But those guys came into the picture later. The most interesting thing, to me, about this album, is that Antonoff wrote and sketched it out all over the world while touring with fun. Despite his rigorous schedule, the music started pouring out, and instead of sleeping or sight-seeing, he'd hit the studio in Sweden or Malaysia, or stay in his hotel room in South Korea to document every little idea he had. Though he cleaned it up later, with help, there are artifacts both heard and felt in the final project which I think lend more depth and heart to the man's work. At 30, Antonoff has already co-written hits for Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles. And you can really hear the '80s influence in the track "Rollercoaster."
If our listeners aren't already familiar with Madlib, this is long overdue. The Oxnard native born Otis Jackson Jr. is a revered underground rap producer. He's a cornerstone of the locally based, internationally revered, Stones Throw label, and an incredibly prolific musician who's made songs with everyone from Erykah Badu to Ghostface Killah, to Snoop Dogg, to the late, great J Dilla — arguably his only real peer. He's even made entire albums as a fictional jazz quintet. But his latest project has a rock bent. Which you can really hear on the track "Black Dreams (Sludge Fight)."
The hypnotic loop-work makes this decided hip-hop, but the source material is all psych, sludge, metal, prog, and other guitar-driven weirdness from his massive vinyl collection. The album is called 'Rock Konducta, Pt. 1&2,' and it's a continuation of Madlib's beat tape series, where he crafts a staggering number of stone-cold (and often stoner-y) grooves and compiles them for us to hear.
This kind of stuff would normally go to a potential collaborator so that Snoop or someone else could pick a loop to rap over. But the cult of Madlib is such that there's no lack of demand for every little hiccup the man commits to tape.
And the guy doesn't take advantage of that. Or, if he does, I can't tell — his cutting room scraps are gems. Every. Single. One.
There are 52 tracks here spread across two discs. It's great driving music, or headphones music, or a good 79-minute slow sink into the couch following a visit to a local dispensary music. For those looking to geek out over the references, you'll find a whole lot of Krautrock (there's a song called "Ra Ash," and one names "Motorik Matching"). Plus, we're told by the label, Spanish prog-rock and synthy early '80s oddities." Most of it, though pulls from the '60s and '70s, as is clear in the song "Black Widow," as it samples the short-lived psych band Tomorrow, who had zero hits but live on in record collections of those in the know.
Steve Hochman's Picks:
Artists: Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden
Album: Last Dance
Songs: "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Goodbye"
Last Friday saw the passing of two giants of modern music: jazz bassist Charlie Haden, and founding drummer of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone. Some people seemed confounded in any attempt to relate the two seemingly contrasting musicians. But it's not hard at all: Both had significant roles in revolutions, key in rewriting the rules of their respective genres, and yet upholding the core values and aesthetics. Or, more accurately, by upholding those values.
Haden was part of Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking quartet, leading the way in what was somewhat inaccurately called "free jazz." It was not completely unstructured as some often assumed, but rather created a framework in which both the individual musicians' talents and their collective chemistry could be maximized — the essential nature of jazz from its very beginnings, just given some new approaches.
Following that, he began a long-running collaboration with pianist Keith Jarrett, resulting in music of equal measures beauty and power, and no restrictions of direction. He also led various groups of his own, perhaps most notably the large Liberation Music Orchestra, with music fueled by his commitment to social justice and a global perspective.
It's his partnership with Jarrett that provides the final release of Haden's lifetime, the new, fittingly titled Last Dance. Recorded in sessions a few years ago, it's a conversation, indeed a dance, of two supreme talents and two supreme friends, a testimony to both artistry and, well, love. There's a playful, lighthearted quality to much of it, notably in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring." But there's much joy to be found in even the somber moments, all coming together in the album's closer, the elegant elegy, "Goodbye."
Haden's last public performance came in December at the REDCAT in the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex in Downtown Los Angeles, conducting students of his from CalArts in a program built on the Liberation Music ensemble repertoire. He seemed frail and weak as he came on stage, using a walker, and could hardly speak to make song introductions, all the result of Post-Polio Syndrome — the return of symptoms from the disease he'd had as a child. But when he took up the baton to lead the young musicians, he was vibrant, fully engaged, fully energized.
And then, for an encore of the Miles Davis - Bill Evans classic ballad "Blue in Green," he took up his double bass. There was no concession to illness in what he played. Mid-song the rest of the group quieted and Haden started a bass solo, spinning exquisite themes of great beauty. Several times the pianist, serving as the group's director, made starts to bring the ensemble back in, but each time Haden waved him off and continued his solo, extending it out to more than six sublime minutes. For those of us privileged to be there, it's a memory we will treasure, though one of many treasures from Charlie Haden's legacy.
Artist: OBN III's
Album: Live in San Francisco
Songs: "Off the Grid," "No Time for the Blues"
Tommy Ramone (born Tamás Erdélyi in Budapest in 1952) left the band in 1978, just four years after he and three pals from Queens started playing together. But what a time that was! Dismissed as barely musical, as cartoon toughs in their leather jackets and pseudo-sibling last name singing such silliness as "Beat on the Brat With a Baseball Bat" — well, they were those things. And that was the whole point. The loved rock, the visceral, dangerous, romantic and stupid spirit of the rock of their childhoods. Pop music at that time had lost a lot of that, and for those kids had lost its fun. So the mission was clear: Spirit means more than skills.
The spark took and the impact was profound, and quick, reverberating in London, Los Angeles, pretty much everywhere, and well beyond music easily labeled as punk.
But this isn't about history — you know all that. This is about today, and the impact that is still being felt, 40 years after the band began, nearly 20 since it played its last show in 1996 and, with Tommy's passing, after all the originals have died, the drummer preceded by singer Joey in 2001, bassist Dee Dee in 2002 and guitarist Johnny in 2004.
Right now there's a punk-fueled garage-rock renaissance happening, a community of young bands and artists embracing those same values, with their own fresh spirit.
One of the best is the Texas-originated OBN III's, named for singer Orville Bateman Neeley III. Their latest album, a quickie concert recording that's part of a Live in San Francisco series documenting the new garage-rock scene, shows a lot of pre-Ramones influence, notably from Iggy & the Stooges and the MC5. But without the Ramones you wonder if this band and others of their generation would ever have even heard that earlier music. And there's no doubt from a listen that the Ramones are a very heavy presence, starting with the power-chorded rush of "Off the Grid."
Hold on to your hats!
But if you want irrefutable evidence of the Ramones' presence here, just listen to the start of the album's last song, "No Time for the Blues," reprised from the recent studio album Third Time to Harm. Every time a band starts a song with a rapid-fire "1-2-3-4" it's a hearty toast to those four young men from Queens.