Friday, August 26, 2016

The invisible man: Goodbye, Rudy Van Gelder

When I heard the news about Rudy Van Gelder, I thought about this track, with its almost surreally present-sounding Roy Haynes drum intro...

...and I started thinking about how when I hear Roy Haynes in my head, or Sam Rivers or Jackie McLean or Tony Williams or Andrew Hill or Richard Davis or Eric Dolphy or Bobby Hutcherson or Don Cherry or Ed Blackwell or John Coltrane or Elvin Jones or so many of my other jazz heroes, what I'm hearing is actually a collaboration between the artist in question and this greatest of jazz recording engineers.

JazzWax: What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?

Rudy Van Gelder:
Some people think I'm a producer. I'm not. I'm a recording engineer. I don't hire the musicians nor do I come up with concepts for albums or how well musicians are playing. I'm there to capture the music at the time it's being created. This requires me to concentrate on the technical aspects of the recordings, which means the equipment and how the finished product is going to sound.
No dispute there, but didn't there also have to be some spiritual dimension to his art, some reason why so much magic happened there in that room in Englewood Cliffs? I think of those gorgeous Francis Wolff Blue Note photos, so many of them taken at Van Gelder's — the visual equivalent of the RVG sound: unadorned yet full. Clear, wholesome, true.

If you learn about the discographical history of jazz through RVG recordings, which, to me, seems like just about the best way to do it, you come to expect a certain integrity and rightness in your jazz records, a circumstance in which the temporal and spatial veil between you and the artist(s) is all but invisible. So many jazz records of the '70s and '80s sound so strange, so bad, so awkward, warped, hollow. So much so that for years, I dismissed those years aesthetically as well. Now, without really thinking about it, I tend to listen past a record's sonic quality whenever I feel like I have to. But you never have to do that with an RVG record. The word "timeless" is suspect, but I think it's basically an indisputable fact that the majority of the recordings Rudy Van Gelder made for, say, Blue Note and Impulse in the '60s — which only comprise a small sliver of his discography, in the end — sound pure and true and, somehow (spatially, spiritually) correct.

We all know that every recording is an act of interpretation. Cue Werner Herzog:

"...for me the boundary between fiction and 'documentary' simply does not exist, they are all just films. Both take 'facts,' characters, stories and play with them in the same kind of way."
I'm all for that idea. But I think there is a certain way of documenting sound which conveys, second-to-second, the engineer's deep drive to relay that sound's true voice, not simply "how it really sounded," but how it ideally would sound were your hearing perfectly acute, your engagement perfectly complete, your environment perfectly calibrated, your filter perfectly clean. This is an elusive and problematic idea, but it really boils down to the oft-repeated adage that "art is the concealment of art."

So Rudy Van Gelder is, in a sense, in between us and some great percentage of the jazz we hold in our heads and hearts. He's there, but he's invisible. Invisible, that is, until we hear recorded music that he did not take part in documenting (a fact that can often seem like an aesthetic tragedy). Then we know how much this invisible man really did for us, and for the artists, and for the art form. Without question, he lives on and on, further than any of us can see or know.


*Peter Keepnews' NYT obituary.

*Ben Sidran's interview. This is just awesome.


"I'm on the wrong side of this microphone. This is very strange for me. I just feel very uncomfortable. I'd rather be on the opposite side..."

Also love this:

"If you wanted to think of a way to inhibit creativity in jazz music in the studio, I would come up with a multi-track machine.... It's a machine of mass destruction."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Pulling their weight: Why Couch Slut is heavier than metal

Couch Slut at Aviv, 8/19/16

As a fan of metal and related styles, you become pretty accustomed to music that ostensibly deals with pain, suffering, even violence but that doesn't sound particularly painful. Cannibal Corpse, for example, a band I love, actually evokes an idea of extreme achievement, of musical drive and athleticism, much more than a sense of horror and trauma. It's funny, given that they've built an entire career out of portraying actual murder, that their music takes no real human toll. It doesn't hurt to listen to it; personally, it makes me want to get up and run around and live.

I'm working through this concept because I'm trying to find a way to describe the sensation of seeing Couch Slut live. I'm far from an expert on what's going on musically day-to-day in NYC at this moment, but I would have no problem labeling them as the best band in the city right now. It's a title I would have formerly bestowed on the mighty Vaz, before they left town. These two bands share very little in common, but the area in which they do overlap is crucial: When I watch either band play, I feel, underneath a sense of exhilaration at the aggression, the command, the extremity, a sense of unease, of alarm, of "How far exactly are they going to take this?"

Couch Slut's music can take the form of frenzied, rhythmically jagged hardcore, or of leaden, thudding noise-rock, with hints of punkish black metal and swaggering riff rock poking through, but their strength as a band is not about style; it's about sensation. Whatever tempo they're playing at, their music gives me a Sisyphean feeling, a sense of grinding, methodical labor — a sense of relentless effort without payoff. A sense of "This is going to hurt us as much as it hurts you." A sense of the assumption of a great burden. A sense of extreme resignation coupled with extreme determination. Of music that asks a lot, that takes a real emotional toll rather than just alluding to that concept.

Couch Slut, in their current lineup, are operating in a very classic "three machines and a wild card' configuration. I'm talking about Led Zeppelin, the Jesus Lizard, etc., where you have an absolutely deadly, precision-engineered guitar-bass-drums band set against the presence of a singer whose job it is — and obviously the Lizard are the more apt comparison here — to essentially unravel, to flail, to purge.

Try "Little Girl Things" here (it's the first track, so you'll have to click backward) to get a sense of what I mean:

Music that is both ever-advancing and never-progressing, tension that is ever-heightening. And on the flip side, vocals that are ever-exorcising but never getting to the relief at the end of catharsis, pitched at the harrowing intersection of a scream and a sob. I don't pretend to know exactly what Megan Osztrosits is giving voice to via her performance of this music, but the song titles alone — which, on My Life as a Woman, the band's sole release so far, include "Lust Chamber," "Rape Kit" and Split Urethra Castle" — go a long way toward situating the listener in a place of degradation, despair and sexual trauma. As with the music, there is a quality of alarm inherent in paying witness to her performances. I'm a drummer more than a vocalist, but I've done my share of cathartic screaming, and the sense I have is that you don't tap into anguish as profound as that which Osztrosits summons without revisiting some kind of private hell.

As at last night's outstanding show at Aviv, an intimate, great-sounding venue on the Greenpoint/Bushwick border, Osztrosits tends to spend most of Couch Slut's live sets standing on the floor in front of the stage, getting right down into the mix, breaking the fourth wall in a purposeful way. Each line she howls is another mini mission of despair, sometimes accompanied by a hoisted, spewing beer can. She slams the microphone into her face or legs. She leans into each sentiment with the force of involuntary convulsion.

Meanwhile, the musicians behind her — I know their names, but they seem to favor quasi-anonymity online, so I'll respect that — operate with grim determination. The cliché of "It's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it" seems to apply here. A sense of repetitive, churning labor, yes, but coupled with — and this element seems to have increased in prominence in the year or so, and this makes the Lizard and Zeppelin comparisons seem even more apt to me — a quality of true old-school rawk nastiness. If you took AC/DC and re-deployed their supple groove and hip-shaking swing in the service of harrowing pain rather than easy pleasure, you might have something like Couch Slut. Their music moves with a rare kind of looseness, even as it's advancing toward you like a tank — or, maybe, considering the aura of sordid, noxious nastiness that envelops this band and its listener, like projectile vomit in slo-mo.

The takeaway here — for me, at least — is that "metal," or what have you, is no guarantee of anything, in terms of actual affect. What I seem to be looking for these days — and have been looking for ever since I can remember, really — is music that antes up emotionally, Crowbar being an almost comically extreme example. Couch Slut doesn't just co-opt or shallowly depict pain, they convey it. And I mean that in the sense of "to express," but also of "to carry." A great burden (aesthetic, emotional, physical) is being shouldered, by all four members, when this band takes the stage. And if you value so-called extreme music, of whatever flavor, you owe it to yourself to be there next time to pay witness – as it were, to pull your weight.


*Here's a fairly recent live video. (Disclaimer: As with all truly great bands, any recording or representation of Couch Slut is almost an insult to their overwhelming power as an in-the-flesh performing entity.)

*Bbigpigg — proudly carrying on the legacy of the late, lamented Drayton Sawyer Gang, two of whose former members play in this band — and Multicult — whose sound resembles a tightened, sped-up Shellac with all conceivable musical excess trimmed out — also played last night. Both were pulverizing and great.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Where the mystery lies: Goodbye, Bobby Hutcherson

One of my favorite sound series in recorded music occurs during a five-second span here, from 6:11 to 6:16:

Bobby Hutcherson:
Tony Williams: Thud-thud

Bobby Hutcherson: Clang!
Tony Williams: Thud-thud

Bobby Hutcherson: Clang!
Tony Williams: Thud-thud

That passage, to me, epitomizes Blue Note's glorious mid-'60s flowering, of which Hutcherson was such a vital part: this quality of poised, wired, almost perverse exploration that, on records like Out to Lunch!, contrasted with breathtaking cohesion and musicality. (The title track of Dialogue and "The Omen" from Happenings — recorded, respectively, roughly a year and two years after OTL!, and featuring Hutcherson on marimba as well as vibes — embody a similarly adventurous spirit while pursuing a spookier mood — free jazz that had nothing to do with Fire Music, per se; this was genuine collective, spontaneous, open-ended, genre-transcendent soundmaking.) These are the records that made me a Jazz Person, all honorary Bobby Hutcherson Dates whether or not he was the nominal leader: Evolution, One Step Beyond, Judgment, Andrew!!!, Dialogue, Components, Happenings, Destination Out and others that I'd discover later on, like Time for Tyner, Oblique and Patterns.

Hutcherson also had a knack for a very unguarded sort of tenderness — hear his own joyful waltz "Little B's Poem" — as well as an almost psychedelic command of texture. Hear Andrew Hill's "Alfred," on which he doesn't solo but nevertheless brings to the theme statements a magical quality of otherworldly singing — that sense of shimmering space, a quintessential expression of the vibraphone's potential. (Walt Dickerson was another vibes player who loved to build up waves upon waves of a kind of sonic gel, inviting the listener to come and float and surrender.)

Listen, for example, to what happens around 3:20 here:

Bobby Hutcherson goes texture-mad, exploding his solo into a ringing, singing soundmist.

And at the other end of the spectrum, you have his somewhat more conventional contributions to an album like Destination Out, where he plays a pianist's role in the ensemble but still revels in his instrument's idiosyncrasy.

Hutcherson was integral to the Jackie McLean / Grachan Moncur III concept, explored here as well as on One Step Beyond and Evolution; his odd, bulbous protrusions, metallic yet also pillowy, helped to sharpen the bracing whiff of eccentricity these records give off. Like Out to Lunch!, these are piquant albums, subtle in their way but insistent in the way they stand apart from hardbop convention. Almost like a synth player or electric guitarist might function in a jazz group several years later, Hutcherson helped to give this music an almost sci-fi quality. He sounded like the future.

Many of the albums discussed above are compiled into this Spotify playlist.

I'm no expert on Hutcherson's later work, such as the celebrated band with Harold Land, in which he seemed to lay back a bit more, elevating the jazz mainstream with his ever-classy approach rather than exploring the margins. This would be the kind of track that my younger self would have been likely to gloss over or even dismiss, but now I just hear it as a consummately well-rounded musician exploring another side of his talent:

For more of Bobby in the '70s, check out this great archived WFIU radio show hosted by David Brent Johnson. Hutcherson's discography starts to get a bit unwieldy in this later Blue Note period and beyond. I'd be grateful for any recommendations re: his essential albums that fall outside the "classic" mid-to-late-'60s phase discussed above.

Thank you, Bobby Hutcherson, who helped to draw me in closer to what, for me, is the very center of jazz, where the mystery lies.


*Nate Chinen's very eloquent NYT obit, which hits on some excellent descriptions of Hutcherson's textural command: "luminescent and coolly fluid"; "resonating overtones and chiming decay"; "coloristic range of sound."

*Peter Hum's remembrance, featuring a collection of musician tributes, is a great read.

*A fascinating Hutcherson anecdote concerning the rehearsals for Out to Lunch!


Friday, August 12, 2016

The underground contract: In praise of Crowbar

"I may be the best writer in this country ... But I'm still a 'mystery writer.'" —Raymond Chandler, from a letter read by Ian Fleming as a preface to this 1958 BBC interview. [Note: Scare quotes around "mystery writer" are mine, but the context makes me think they're warranted.]

By coincidence, I was just finishing up my first Chandler novel, The Lady in the Lake, last week, when I attended a show featuring the bands Carcass and Crowbar at the Gramercy Theatre. That convergence got me thinking about the pros and cons of genre, whether that be "mystery writing" or the practice of playing capital-M Metal music — how these frameworks can restrict an artist's work in the commercial or critical sense but maybe also protect it in the creative one.

I have a long history with each of these bands, dating back more than 20 years. I'm pretty sure I first encountered Carcass and Crowbar for the first time on MTV's Headbanger's Ball and that I bought their respective 1993 albums — Heartwork and Crowbar — soon after they came out. (I saw Crowbar the following year when they set the stage for an astonishing Pantera set in support of Far Beyond Driven.)

Carcass is a band I didn't think about terribly much in the years between that initial exposure and 2008 or so, when they reunited for some touring. But by the time Surgical Steel, their 2013 comeback album, came out, I was fully back on board; it's one of my favorite records, in any style, of the past 10 years or so, and easily my favorite metal record of that period, in part because of the way it gleefully tramples on the idea that various arbitrarily distinct subgenres ought to be kept distinct from one another. I think it's every bit as good as Heartwork and the band's other true back-catalog classic, 1991's Necroticism.

With Crowbar, the situation was a little different. I'd loved that self-titled album back in the day — the one that spawned a couple singles/videos that Beavis and Butt-head had a field day with — but even though, unlike Carcass, they never disbanded, I stopped paying attention for some reason.

That changed quickly at last week's show. Onstage, Crowbar radiated intensity, passion and the kind of blue-collar conviction that had drawn me to them in the first place. Original bassist Todd Strange (known in the ever-witty world of New Orleans metal as "Sexy T") recently rejoined the band after a roughly 16-year gap, which is a blessing, because he and vocalist-guitarist Kirk Windstein were clearly born to play together: Two burly, bald, bearded men, now in their early fifties, laying down a classic form of dirge-blues-metal that's sometimes, reductively, pegged as "sludge," while wearing that classic hard-rock scowl — that forbidding posture tempered, between songs, with Windstein's expressions of unabashed gratitude and enthusiasm. (Fellow Southern-metal institution Corrosion of Conformity, whose sometime member Pepper Keenan formerly worked with Windstein in Down, embodies a similar kind of dark/light duality, an "an auspicious evil borne out of sheer fun and bro-hood" as I called it here; same goes for Crowbar's NOLA comrades Eyehategod, whose guitarist Jimmy Bower also played in Down.)

Crowbar's set last week featured a few of my old favorites from Crowbar, including punishing opening track "High Rate Extinction," in some ways the quintessential Crowbar song — an excellent example of the band's ugly, relentless churn and clench, the way its riffs slam down on you over and over like heavy machinery. But, near the end of the set, they also played this, a song from 1998's Odd Fellows Rest that I wasn't previously familiar with:

After the show, I did some Googling, found out the name of the song and dialed it up, and I was absolutely floored by its artfulness, how it married Crowbar's trademark agonized trudge with yearning pop vulnerability. I hadn't been totally oblivious to the hook-y side of Crowbar — Windstein sort of roar-croons a gorgeous melody during the "Save all that you feel for me" bridge of Crowbar's signature song "All I Had (I Gave)," the same track Beavis and Butt-head ripped on — but I had no idea to what extent Windstein, the band's leader, chief songwriter and only consistent member throughout its lifespan, had cultivated and refined this element of the band's work over the years.

"Planets Collide" was the spark. In the week since the show, I've listened to every one of the band's 10 albums, from 1991's Obedience Through Suffering through 2014's Symmetry in Black, finally placing Crowbar into its proper discographical context. A few things are clear: 1) As much as I loved (and still love) that self-titled album, I've been sleeping on the true power and majesty of this band for quite some time. 2) Crowbar is a classic American band with an incredibly rich, consistent discography.

The latter point brings me back (finally!) to the reason I cited that Raymond Chandler quote above: Crowbar is a band that's perhaps destined to be underrated by the world outside the metal community.

In interviews, Windstein has always flaunted his diverse tastes — citing influences ranging from Thin Lizzy to Steely Dan, U2, the Neville Brothers and Wings — and the band has recorded gorgeous and brilliantly Crowbar-ized covers of both Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" and Gary Wright's Wayne's World–enshrined soft-rock classic "Dream Weaver."

But while Windstein has never been shy about namechecking his varied influences and, accordingly, gradually broadening the scope of his own work in surprising and often revelatory ways, he's never tried to portray himself as anything other than a humble metal craftsman, grinding away in the trenches. Windstein begins every show by bellowing an endearing greeting to the crowd: "We're Crowbar from New Orleans, and we're gonna kick your ass!" He's comfortable in the role of the ass-kicker, and he's one of the best in the business; his commitment to the monolithic macho groove has never wavered and even his most melodic songs are often delivered with guttural anguish. But as with Chandler, there's a risk of camouflage here: that Crowbar will forever be seen as merely a great genre band rather than a great band, period.

I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I'd love to see Kirk Windstein enshrined as a great American songwriter, which I think he is. On the other, the conditions of the contemporary metal underground, the way it allows bands to achieve a certain degree of traction and success — regularly selling out club dates in the U.S. and playing high-profile fests in Europe and elsewhere — without ever truly "breaking," do seem especially conducive to fostering the kind of consistency that Crowbar embodies. How many other bands can you name that have put out nine very-good-to-great albums during the past 25 years, as Crowbar have? (I say nine rather than 10 because I'd count their debut, Obedience Through Suffering, as more foundational than essential.) Hell, how many bands can you name that have put out five, or even two? Looking at some of the great Big Rock Bands of our time, at least the ones whose music I enjoy, I see either spottiness (Pearl Jam and even Queens of the Stone Age who, as brilliant as they are, I find to be hit-and-miss on record) or frustrating sluggishness, bordering on inactivity (I'm looking at you, Tool). And so many of the great '90s hopes left us with stunted discographies: Rage Against the Machine or Pantera, or less widely known but equally worthy bands such as Quicksand, Helmet and Jawbox. (Fugazi had a hell of a streak going there, but they're gone too.) Or they simply evolved into something less urgently great, like Metallica — I love a lot of what's on Death Magnetic and even some of St. Anger, but it's hard to argue that some essential magic, even with re Black Album era, hasn't been lost over the years.

What I'm saying in a nutshell is: Could it be that remaining firmly ensconced within Metal has allowed an artist like Windstein the freedom to evolve while also keeping his band from going off the rails aesthetically or simply imploding due to industry pressure and interpersonal b.s.? Is the ceiling (or umbrella) of genre somehow beneficial in this way?

One thing that's clear: Metal, and especially the underground, is definitely a culture of the long game. As a fan, one reason I've stayed interested for so long is that there's just so damn much material out there. Even when bands make only the slightest incremental changes to their core sound — let's shout out the almighty -tions here: Incantation, Immolation and Suffocation, three groups that I hold up as gold standards re: all that's great about a "lifer" approach to metal in specific and music in general — there's something so rewarding, so fulfilling about these shelf-filling discographies, this consistency of quality product, issued steadily over the course of decades. If you're an album-focused listener, the world of extreme metal is a vast treasure trove.

I'd peg all the -tion bands cited above as relatively conservative when it comes to aesthetics and the progression of time. They've refined their approaches over the years, but these days, they're out to satisfy, not to surprise. None, of course, are as conservative as Obituary, and on a slightly lower rung of recognition/impact, Asphyx, both of whom take what is essentially an AC/DC-esque, ain't-broke-wouldn't-dream-of-fixing-it approach to extreme metal. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your Gorgutses, bands for whom evolution and experimentation are part of the deal — an approach that can — in the hands of Luc Lemay and others on his level of genius, though there aren't many — work wonders (as it did earlier for, say, Death and the sadly defunct Cynic).

I realize that Crowbar aren't a death metal band, but I find the above taxonomy and implied spectrum of aesthetic pathways useful. So where do Kirk Windstein and Co. fit? There is a certain Obituary-esque stick-in-the-mud quality to the band, a basic allegiance to Crowbar's core low-and-slow dirge-rawk style, intact for a quarter-century, but as a songwriter and, most notably, a singer, Windstein has never stopped pushing himself. Read the following Windstein quote (from a 2000 Chronicles of Chaos interview; emphasis mine) and compare the aforementioned "High Rate Extinction" with "Planets Collide" or with that choice "Dream Weaver" cover.

"It's cool because we made a couple of changes beginning with 'Nothing' on Broken Glass. That was the first song we ever wrote that way; melodic vocally. I really got bored with all the barking-type vocals thing. For some of the faster hardcore ones it's cool, but for some of the riffs — the riffs are getting more melodic even though they're really heavy — it's better to do something melodic on vocals on top of it. We've been doing this shit for twelve years, we'd get bored doing the same thing over and over again. We always want to stay true to what Crowbar's about, but we feel that we've made subtle changes over the years that enable us to do different stuff now: to not feel like we can only play this one style."
Windstein is essentially operating as a soul singer here:

And there are examples of those "subtle changes" all over the Crowbar catalog, even predating Broken Glass, from 1996, which Windstein cites as the turning point. See Crowbar's "I Have Failed", "I Feel the Burning Sun" (Equilibrium, 2001) or "Symmetry in White" (Symmetry in Black, 2014), not to mention the almost chamber-music-esque palate-cleansing interludes that started to crop up on the band's albums around the time of 1998's Odd Fellows Rest.

Similarly, Windstein's lyrics have progressed from self-flagellation (see "I Have Failed" above, which memorably features Windstein bellowing, "I have motherfucking failed!") to self-help, e.g., Symmetry's "Walk With Knowledge Wisely" ("I am the living proof / That you can right what is wrong in your life"), mirroring what was apparently a long, hard path to sobriety for Crowbar's leader. (The longest, hardest stretch being chronicled, one suspects, on 2001's Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form, an aptly titled album that's surely the most extreme and excruciating in the Crowbar discography and possibly one of the two or three best.)

So there is an evolution here, but it's tempered with a common-sense, don't-fuck-with-the-formula instinct. Not surprising, given that Motörhead — a band that changed with the times just enough to avoid stagnancy while keeping its core sound within its sights at all times — embodies Windstein's own personal career ideal. From the same Chronicles of Chaos interview:

"... my main goal, when I started the band, was that if we could just get to where Motörhead is or something ... You know, not like mainstream, not on the radio, not on MTV, not on none of this shit, but able to just go on for fuckin' twenty-five years. I want to be the Lemmy of my generation. I want to be fuckin' fifty years old and three hundred fuckin' pounds. Full of tattoos, drinkin' beer and fuckin' jammin' my balls off because that's all I know how to do."
(Tangentially, I love how Windstein talks about how he never feels the need to play faster than what he calls "Motörhead speed" in this Metal Injection interview.)

The result of all this is that you have a band that, in 2016, sounds unmistakably like the one I fell in love with 20-plus years ago but with just enough variation that you can tell that Windstein has remained engaged, passionate, prolific, humble, driven.

It was apparent at the Gramercy Theatre show that Kirk Windstein is Crowbar, that his personal journey — finding greater visibility with Down, a relatively high-profile supergroup, only to leave that project and focus solely on his signature band — has led him to a place of absolute leave-it-all-on-the-stage conviction each night. (I find the speech he gives here, an impromptu tirade against a stage-crasher that culminates in a statement of total vulnerability — "My eyes are closed; I'm singing my goddamn heart out" — extremely moving.)

At that point, when you, as an artist, are also the nerve center of your own small business, a business whose only product is what we refer to as a sound — in the case of a metal musician, this nexus of word and riff and emotion and volume that you have wrought and so carefully, methodically refined over so many years — you're existing in a kind of exalted space. Sure, Metallica is still going strong, but do I believe the 2016 James Hetfield onstage like I believe the 2016 Kirk Windstein? Not a chance. That's because unlike Hetfield (an artist who long ago transitioned from Metal Musician to Rock Star, as a novelist might from Mystery Writer to Famous Bestselling Author), Windstein is still operating according to the contract of the underground, still paying the greatest cost and reaping the greatest reward of a life spent toiling in that sphere, gradually working his way toward a music that is as natural as breath, that is the result of the anguish of living being swirled together with the joy of creation and sublimated into something so harsh it's soothing. So grizzled it's constantly renewed. So familiar it's a revelation each time. The fan shows up and meets the artist in that space and a brotherhood is formed, another contract is drawn up and signed: "I'll keep showing up if you do."

I want all that out of music, and as Crowbar — all 27 years' and 10 albums' worth — shows, it's not too much to ask.


Here are 16 Crowbar songs I love for various reasons:


P.S. I'm intrigued by this musical nexus that unites Crowbar, their fellow New Orleans artists — such as Eyehategod and Phil Anselmo of Down and Pantera — and NYC's now-defunct Type O Negative (R.I.P., Peter Steele). Crowbar toured with Type O back in the day; Windstein shares a heartwarming story about Steele's generosity here. He has the green Type O logo tattooed on the back of his left hand, and he dedicated the song "Symbolic Suicide" on Symmetry to Steele.

All of these artists have made (or did make) art that fixates on the concept of negativity and/or depravity, chronicling what it feels like to succumb to these forces, to defy or resent them, to laugh in their faces, or even to conquer them. But their worldviews are very different. At base, I'd call Eyehategod a fundamentally negative band, one obsessed with the idea of wallowing, while I'd call Crowbar a fundamentally positive band, one obsessed with the idea that some sort of mastery, or at the very least progress, is possible. Anselmo's work has run that gamut, from repulsive to inspirational. Steele's work found great power at the intersection of cold ugliness, rapturous beauty and deadpan humor. In all these cases, and I find this admirable, there seems to be a one-to-one relationship between personality and artwork: What you see in the individual is what you get in the music. There's no softening or blunting going on in any of these catalogs.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Keeping it real: Thank you, Ben Ratliff

A little over five years ago, when I was employed at Time Out New York, I received an IM from my friend and music-department colleague there, Steve Smith, about a Ben Ratliff review of a Paul Motian performance at the Village Vanguard that had just gone live on the Times website. Steve and I were both avowed Ratliff fans, but this latest dispatch was, I remember him suggesting, a textbook example of this most unusual and potent critic in his element. There's a section early in the piece that says this of the group in question, a sort of oblique Modern Jazz Quartet tribute unit with Motian, Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan:

"It instructs without directly teaching you a thing. It’s tense and mysterious and completely exemplary. It runs through Sunday night. You ought to hear it."

Anyone who has followed jazz in New York during Ben Ratliff's tenure at the Times knows these sorts of exhortations. When a band was playing at the Vanguard and Ratliff went early in the week and wrote about it — positively, yes, but not just that; also probingly, intriguingly, alluringly and, very often, just plain oddly — it had a way, for me, at least, and I think for a lot of others who have had some sort of stake in this music in this city at this time, of turning that band's weeklong residency into a sort of instant cultural happening. Not just a "see and be seen" thing, though during certain residencies, you'd often go and see all the "jazz people" there. No, it was much deeper than that: upon publication of the right kind of Ratliff review, the ones where he not only loved the band in question but seemed to sort of vibe with it, when, as he discussed yesterday on a special edition of the NYT Podcast (timed to the announcement that he's leaving the paper after 20 great years) his critical-brain "window" or "third ear" was fully open and receptive, and those sensations it registered made it to the page intact, a kind of rare aesthetic eclipse occurred, wherein the interests and passions of an entire community of receptive listeners in a certain city during a certain week aligned with the truest and most sincere and most profound impulses of the musicians, and what resulted was a kind of sustained bliss.

If you were smart and had the time, you did as Ratliff said and you went to hear the band, and you shared in that sensation. He wasn't telling you what to think about the music; it was more that he was saying, "This is what happened to me" and simply recommending that you enter that space, in the company of those geniuses, with that kind of complete openness. He seemed to be cultivating in his audience a receptivity to musical wonder. And for those of us already inclined toward listening in that state, it was a marvel and a gift to have that kind of almost mystical faith in the power of listening, and in the power of a certain sort of oracular, iconic musician like Paul Motian (Taborn and Morgan were also favorites, as were Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, Masabumi Kikuchi — I must have read this beautiful piece something like 15 times — and other artists who embodied that sort of probing quality, the holy mystery at the core of certain strains of jazz), expressed in what all understand to be the Paper of Record.

He wasn't a cheerleader, but he was, I believe, rooting for jazz in general, and for NYC jazz in particular. At his best, Ben Ratliff wasn't writing reviews; he was writing benedictions. When he praised an up-and-coming artist (Kris Davis, for instance), it felt like New York as a whole, "the scene," as it were, was welcoming that musician into the pantheon.

And to have that sphere of influence begin to extend out to another area of music that I hold dear (metal and related styles; see this Greg Fox benediction, analogous to the Davis one above) was more than I or anyone else who happened to share that dual affinity could have asked for, to find yourself reading about Cynic or Liturgy or Salome or freakin' Eyehategod in the New York Times, for chrissakes. (I remember standing outside Europa with Ben and some others after this show, savoring what we'd just heard and beaming with disbelief.) Frankly, it was also a bit intimidating, to be a music writer who happened to specialize in jazz and metal working in NYC during the Ratliff Years. Writing is not, as I see it, a competition, but there was a certain standard being set, or rather a bar constantly being raised, during this period, and you wanted to show up and be present and do right by the art, and the artists, and the community. That was one way Ben Ratliff influenced me, by demonstrating that you can really "get there" with writing, not meaning that you could reach a lot of people and influence public opinion about a certain artist or record or performance, but that you could bottle up some kind of borderline religious experience you'd had while listening to music, which is really what we're always after, and share it and point others that way and record it as a kind of memento of the wonderful time you'd had and how it felt. (That last part is really all I've ever hoped to do with particular blog.)

But it wasn't about genre, as Ratliff's new book, Every Song Ever, posits. You were listening past style and into the realm of pure quality. That now-clichéd but ultimately perfectly true Duke Ellington thing about "two kinds of music: good and bad," he really understood that. So when he wrote about, say, Manuel Agujetas and penned a line like this, you sat bolt upright and you damn well listened: "If you have any interest in the void, Manuel Agujetas is your man." Ratliff basically wrote about that late flamenco singer as if he were a metal artist, and my God did I regret that I'd missed that show. But the piece inspired me to look deep into Agujetas's work and I feel profoundly grateful that Ben led me there.

And then when he wrote about musicians you already loved but wanted to know more about, well, forget about it. Reading The Jazz Ear (a book that began life as a series of Times pieces), which I have done in full three or four times and piecemeal many, many more, I am in a state of pure delight. I've held different opinions at different times, but at this moment, and not just because of the occasion, I feel absolutely at ease calling this my favorite music book. As Ethan Iverson suggests in his elegant Ratliff tribute, the Motian profile here is beyond definitive — it goes so deep and with such a light touch and even humor to boot. It is simply the resource on the man and his mystery. The Metheny piece, the Shorter piece, the Andrew Hill piece, the Bob Brookmeyer piece. There is just so goddamn much humanity and perception and wisdom and fun in that book. It is the perfect confluence of writer and subject, and it is relatively brief and readable and it is profound.

Ratliff in the Podcast linked above takes issue with the word "criticism," a term I also can't stand and avoid using whenever possible. For me I would define what I do when working in this field as simply writing passionately and (hopefully) intelligently about music I love, and, when I'm lucky, doing that in conjunction with actually conversing with the artists behind that music. It's not "criticism"; it's a state of gratitude and perception and bliss — it's the writer returning the favor, repaying the spiritual debt the music has brought about in him or her via conversation (see also these great interviews with Bill Callahan and Jim O'Rourke, the rock-world equivalents of the jazz eccentrics he so treasured) and written reflection — and that state, that exchange, is documented so purely in The Jazz Ear, precisely because we not only get to hear what Ratliff hears in the work of these musicians, but because the book itself is based on the idea of interviewing-as-shared-listening we get to hear the musicians listening and reacting in turn.

Existing with and responding to and questioning and, as Ratliff puts it, really getting inside music is joy. That's the lesson that his work taught time and again. It isn't about being right or having "good taste"; it isn't about judging things; it's about going there, for yourself first and foremost, and then trying to bring back a little bit of what you found and put it on the page so that others can get a flavor of it and, ideally, be enticed to go experience it for themselves.

Of course there's so much we have learned and can still earn from his style, his stubborn idiosyncrasy, pithiness and often just plain weirdness (I will always treasure the WTF quality of this line in a Zs review: "These pieces are all brain-benders; they’re conceptual art objects that set form and content against each other — like, say, a perfect birthday cake made out of sawdust, or a perfect hammer made out of bird feathers.") I know I will miss that "voice" as well as his actual voice on the Popcasts, which I love. But what I will miss most is just that sense that Ben Ratliff is out there, on the beat, keeping it real and teaching by example.

I will also say on a personal note that I appreciate enormously Ben's encouragement and positivity re: my own work, during the handful of times that our paths have crossed. He was kind enough, for example, to let me know that he enjoyed the liner notes I'd written for the Henry Threadgill box set on Mosaic, and to mention the craw project in the 2015 NYT box set round-up.

And so mainly I just want to say what a pleasure it's been to share, as it were, airspace, with this singular talent. Thanks, Ben Ratliff, for doing not just the week-in/week-out work that was asked of you at the NYT but for responding to a higher calling, your own need to "get inside" the music, for drowning out the deafening noise of the online opinion machine and using your forum at the most respected news outlet in the world to go somewhere disarmingly personal. Whatever you publish from here on out, I'll be reading, and I'll be learning from the back catalog for a long time to come.


*Definitely read Nate Chinen — who gives us all the assurance that NYT jazz coverage will remain in the very best of hands — on Ben Ratliff on Twitter.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

STATS live (now w/ lead singer!)

Quick public-service announcement here re: a STATS show that's going down this coming Saturday (7/23) at the Cobra Club in Bushwick. Previously scheduled for the Acheron (RIP).

Key points:

1) This is a record-release show for our Cleveland comrades Murderedman, put on by the wonderful Aqualamb Records (of craw-box-set fame).

2) This show marks the debut of a new STATS lineup, featuring our first personnel addition in 10 years: our dear friend Nick Podgurski, a multifarious creative dynamo who has worked in too many profound musical situations to name. (See also here.) Nick is now our lead singer, a lead singer being a thing that STATS has never had before. We started out mostly instrumental in the Stay Fucked days and have been slowly and steadily working vocals into the mix. With Nick, we take a quantum leap into that zone.

This band has always represented what I consider to be my fullest musical expression and a chance to collaborate with Joe Petrucelli and Tony Gedrich, my brothers-in-life first but also profoundly talented musicians with whom I share a truly rare creative kinship. Nick fits into this mix perfectly and helps us to realize what — if I may speak for the others — has always been our goal as a band, which is to create aggressive, progressive rock-based music unbounded by needless and restrictive subcategorization. We take from wherever we want and try to make songs that sound intense and engaging, whole and true. With Nick on board, I feel that we move closer to that boundlessness, while at the same time projecting a more intense performative presence. Now each of the four of us focuses on, more or less, one job (guitar, drums, bass, vocals, respectively, with Tony doubling up on the singing), and I think we're all the stronger for it. If you've never seen/heard STATS, I'd humbly suggest that now is the time to do so. And if you have, well, this is something new.

More info on the show here.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Not sweating it: The George Adams / Don Pullen Quartet

There is a great struggle in jazz, or at least in the discourse surrounding it, between the imperatives of art and entertainment. In learning about bebop, we discover that it represented the point when jazz broke away from its genial "society" function, music for dancing, and became something self-consciously radical, avant-garde. The story goes that hardbop swung jazz as a whole back toward the popular pole and that Ornette, Cecil, Trane and others re-radicalized the music and led the way toward the gritty '60s.

After that comes the largely uncanonized period that I never read much of any value about until the Great '73–'90 Revolution spearheaded by Douglas, Iverson, Smith and others, and chronicled/rubber-stamped by Chinen, which has guided and shaped my jazz listening during the past decade.

We're coming up on 10 years since "'73–'90" really took hold, not to mention 10 years still I started this blog, and I'm still getting my head around this period. What a vast goldmine there still is to hear. (I feel like I could spend a lifetime just studying the Black Saint and Soul Note catalogs, to say nothing of ECM.) I bought a used copy of the George Adams / Don Pullen album Breakthrough the other day for $3 at Black Gold in Carroll Gardens and started thinking that fact all over again.

I've since gone a bit mad for this group, which Steve Smith namechecked in his '73–'90 roundup above. I'd heard bits and pieces and always knew they were there, waiting for me, but never really dove in, until now. I'm not necessarily surprised by what I'm hearing, so much as delighted. This isn't a hard band to get one's head around. Much like the best work by the group's patron saint — Mingus [see note following this post], of course, the former employer of Adams, Pullen and drummer Dannie Richmond, who make up the Adams/Pullen 4tet along with bassist Cameron Brown — the appeal of the music is very much on the surface. Maybe more than any other, this band represents one thing that seemed to happen in jazz in the '70s and '80s, which is that the music's various factions and substyles — as reflected in the whole art v. entertainment discourse cited above — all just seemed to sort of swirl together. In the work of Adams, Pullen, Richmond and Brown, I see a kind of rolling up of the sleeves, a notion that we've got all this music to draw on — not just decades of jazz and blues, but centuries of classical music, which are going to be on the table anytime you've got a pianist as versatile and virtuosic as Don Pullen on the bandstand — and the gig's coming up in a few hours and we'd be fools, and fools with much more time on our hands than we actually have, to sort of chop it up and categorize, classify and segregate it. In other words: let's play.

The Adams / Pullen band was not sweating it, and by "it," I mean the idea of what jazz is for. This music bellows, yawps, if you want to get Whitman-y, which I think is appropriate given this band's lusty abandon, their mix of fun and thrust and potency and vitality. What jazz is for is for playing. You get up there and you dig in and you make something happen, and all the ideas and currents just sort of course through you.

Simply put, you should set aside an hour and watch the whole video above, a complete set by this band at a Cologne club in 1986. The opening blues is just pure sweaty pleasure — I love Adams's presence on the mic — but check out what happens from about 20:00 on. Richmond sits down for a smoke, and it's Don Pullen Master Class time. He has a lot of places he wants to take the music, but he's careful to leave a breadcrumb trail, a way in for the attentive listener. The music sparkles and swoops, quiets, swells, reaches some kind of ecstatic avant-barroom frenzy around 24:00, scribbling, flurrying. Out come the sides of the hands, the elbows. Richmond wades fearlessly into the shark-infested waters around 26:30, and in one of those moves that seems straight out of the Mingus playbook — when you bring the rhythm section back in after a break and just start burning/churning — he, Brown and Pullen effortlessly shepherd the music into ass-kicking uptempo bop territory. Adams digging in, throwing a "Rhythm-a-Ning" quote and then blasting off into an indescribably nasty and glorious duo with Richmond. Jazz rarely sounds rawer or better to me than during this kind of stripped-down sax/drums episode, perfected of course by Trane and Elvin, and Adams and Richmond put their own stamp on it here. Adams is a fountain of Monk quotes, throwing out "Round Midnight," "Well You Needn't" and others, while maintaining a molten post-Coltrane flow.

This is what I mean about the abolishment of "school" or faction or sub-movement. You marinate in the music your entire life — think about Don Pullen doing this with Milford Graves in '66 and this (on organ) with Charles Williams five years later — and by the time you've paid your dues and you're in the mature phase of your career, as Adams, Pullen, Richmond and — to a lesser extent at this stage — Brown obviously had and were, you're just strapping on the horn, or sitting down at the drums or piano and just sort of letting it rip. It's the perfect marriage of abandon and authority, and that's what I hear in Pullen/Adams/Brown/Richmond. It's a concept that again flows straight out of Mingus, a man whose bigger-than-big tent encompassed jazz, American music — music, period — from its earthiest to its most ethereal. (See also: the Total Piano school exemplified by obvious Pullen forebear Jaki Byard; Roland Kirk's irreverent, soul-drenched avant-gardism.) It must be stated that the Adams/Pullen 4tet also had no qualms about laying claim to a more-tepid but undeniably enjoyable aesthetic middle ground, often complete with after-work-margaritas-appropriate flute, such as that which shows up here around the 2:00 mark.

Back to the concert above, around 44:00, where Dannie Richmond is laying down this fiercely funky Bo Diddley gone bebop gone breakbeat groove. (A stock word such as "infectious" seems almost profane in reference to such a display — the plain fact is that you cannot sit still when Dannie Richmond is playing drums.) At this particular moment, it's party time in the Pullen/Adams universe. A time for revelry, a time for exuberance, a time for butt-kicking, a time for precision. A time, again, for the decimation of category. The buffet is open and it's all-you-can-eat and Fine Dining and Down Home are equally represented. It is the mid-'80s, but, say, the '40s and the '60s, when aesthetic battles were being fought in the shadow of racial and cultural ones, are far from forgotten. In fact they're the immediate context for much of what's happening here, the source of the vocabulary that courses, unfiltered, out of the instruments. In other words, the struggle that was so apparent in the Coltrane Years now looks, and sometimes sounds, deceptively similar to "mere" entertainment, literal bar-band music, but spend any amount of time with the Adams/Pullen 4tet and you feel a deep pride, a cocky defiance, a profound purpose radiating from the group. We're still in As Serious as Your Life territory.

These men banded together at a time when all jazz could be vernacular music, especially in Europe, where musicians from Sidney Bechet to Ben Webster to Albert Ayler to the Art Ensemble of Chicago had received such a warm and loving welcome, when — at least in the best of scenarios, such as the Pullen/Adams band, a working group that led a long and fruitful collective life — aesthetic debate took a backseat to "Let's just play." This is jazz that needs no translation, jazz not in a fallow, wayward period, but, maybe, jazz at a summit, jazz with nothing to lose, jazz which not even the most faction-conscious listener could argue with — jazz at its actual free-est (not bounded even by "free jazz") and most voracious.

I could imagine Ray Charles sitting in with this band, or Cecil Taylor, or Sonny Rollins, or David S. Ware, or Jason Moran, or Pat Metheny, or Ornette, or Charlie Haden, or B.B. King, or Dr. John. It's the whole thing on one plate, and no one's sweating it. What they're sweating is the spirit and the feeling and the communication and the fun and the severity and the madness and inspiration of the moment. (Just like Mingus taught them.)

It feels quintessential somehow: not the "best" that jazz ever got, because what does that even mean, but, just maybe, the broadest and most bighearted.


Note: It occurs to me that the Adams/Pullen band was to Mingus what Old and New Dreams was to Ornette, a sort of self-governed franchise operation (different in mission, I sense, from an explicit tribute band like Mingus Dynasty, though I'm not familiar with that catalog) in the absence of the figurehead, which in some cases seemed, almost, to achieve a liberation and depth unavailable to the bands in which those figureheads themselves featured, perhaps at the very slight expense of focus and piquant eccentricity.


*Here's a big playlist I made of all the Adams/Pullen I could find on Spotify, including the fascinating duo album Melodic Excursions. This makes for a hell of a shuffle. As far as the individual albums, I'd love to hear people's favorites, but Life Line really grabbed me on a first listen, in addition to Breakthrough, which was reissued here. Incidentally, Ehsan Khoshbakht has some sharp thoughts on the video above here.

*A Dannie Richmond video interview, which predates this group, but nevertheless seems relevant and extremely valuable.

*If anyone has a firm handle on the Don Pullen solo discography, as well as other collective efforts like Warriors, I am, again, all ears. I only know bits and pieces.

*Same goes for George Adams. I'm fascinated by Phalanx, with the incredible lineup of James Blood Ulmer, Sirone and Rashied Ali, but I'm just starting to explore in earnest. This band seems to marry Adams's post-Mingus aesthetic to Blood's post-Ornette one.

*I'm just starting to get a firm handle on the mid-'70s Mingus period that directly birthed the Adams/Pullen band. This is an extraordinary bootleg, in which both Adams and Pullen are both fully on board and very much off the leash.

*Great Don Pullen interviews, from '76 and '80, respectively. Note complex feelings toward Cecil Taylor: admiration tinged with resentment at the comparisons constantly made between them. '76: "We appreciate each other, we dig each other as people." Then, in '80, re: CT's infamous concert w/ Mary Lou Williams: "I am furious that he climbed on the stage, in one of the grandest music-halls in America, with this great lady, this great lady of jazz, aged sixty-eight, in order to reduce her to nothing."

There's also this, from '80: "If I played popular music at this time, it was because I needed to survive." I do hear, as I've indicated above, if not a "poppy" aspect to the Adams/Pullen 4tet, at the very least a populist or vernacular one, which I feel accounts for so much of the fruitful creative tension the band had to offer. Apparently, though, DP drew a sharp distinction between these currents, at least when it came to his overall career arc.

I claim no authority on this matter, but watch Don Pullen groove at the keys around 2:15 here and tell me he wasn't an artist deeply invested in the idea of music that could both enlighten and entertain.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The proud, the few

I interviewed the Descendents this past Monday, the entire band at once, for this Rolling Stone feature (which also includes a premiere of their new video). This was a huge honor and an even bigger pleasure.

In this video, the band's drummer, Bill Stevenson, who produced a portion of Propagandhi's incredible 2009 album, Supporting Caste, calls this venerable Canadian punk group the "best band in the world." I basically agree with him. In terms of fully active touring and recording groups playing any kind of rock music and putting out new material with any regularity, my vote would go to Propagandhi as well. But only because the Descendents and their alter-ego band ALL aren't quite what I'd call "fully active" these days.

If you look at the past three-ish decades, though—a.k.a. my lifetime—I don't think any group aside from maybe Rush (with Ween a close third) has made more music that I value as much as the Descendents/ALL discography. In my relatively short feature, I tried to do justice to the way these twin bands unfussily incorporate the entire emotional spectrum in their work. (Something that Ween, of course, also excel at.) As Descendents age, their sad songs are only getting sadder, their silly ones if not more silly (it's hard to beat something like "I Like Food" in that department), at least more profoundly lighthearted. Joking around, in the Descendents' world, is a serious release.

I think the band's new album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, is great. Same with the companion EP, Spazz Hazard. They may be part-time these days, but Descendents are still on a mission, their quest for all. A "legendary" band that keeps pushing, keeps creating, keeps redefining the aesthetic that earned them that status in the first place. A truly rare scenario, one to be toasted, celebrated, treasured. Long live 'em.

*2011 interviews with Bill Stevenson about Descendents/ALL and jazz, Black Flag, etc.
*My thoughts on the Descendents/ALL doc Filmage.
*DFSBP thoughts on ALL from nearly 10 years ago.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

"The way that you dreamed": An essential oral history of the State

My allegiance to the ongoing comedy universe of the State rivals the one I feel toward my favorite bands. The '93–'95 run of the group's original eponymous MTV show coincided almost exactly with my high-school years, which meant I fell right into the target demographic. I loved the show, and some of the classic sketches — "Taco Man," "Porcupine Racetrack," "The Bearded Men of Space Station 11," plus anything with Barry and Levon (the "$240 worth of pudding" guys), Doug ("I'm outta heeeere") or Louie ("I wanna dip my balls in it") — have stuck with me as much as anything from SNL, which I also watched religiously during the Mike Myers / Phil Hartman glory years.

The later spin-off output by various State members has made even more of an impression. Wet Hot American Summer is easily an all-time top 10 movie for me (the Netflix reboot did not disappoint), I worship all the Stella material, and I could watch David Wain's other directorial output (Wanderlust, the mindblowingly great They Came Together, the Wainy Days web series) pretty much on an infinite loop. It's some kind of primal wavelength thing: This comedy just speaks to me.

So when I heard about The Union of the State, a new oral history of the group and its various offshoot projects, spanning from the surprisingly high-stakes late-'80s NYU sketch-comedy scene that spawned the State up through to more or less the present-day, I ordered it pretty much immediately. The book is a whopping 600 pages, and I expected it to be a fun text to dip into — maybe check out a chapter at a time in-between other reads. But I knew within a few pages that I'd be reading it cover-to-cover. Simply put, this book is profound. All the facts and anecdotes are here — the stories behind all your favorite sketches; the behind-the-scenes account of the filming of Wet Hot, which is a must for any fan of the movie — but more importantly there's a larger, more universal narrative at work here: the story of what it means to live a creative life, of what happens — good, bad, ugly and just plain insane — when your passion becomes your profession. It's to the credit of the author, Corey Stulce, who, almost miraculously, self-published this remarkable book, that these larger themes don't feel at all forced. As with any great oral history, the narrative seems to sort of shape itself, but as I know firsthand (from putting together the far less extensive oral history I assembled for the beautiful Aqualamb-designed book that accompanies the craw box set), this is not the case. An oral history is a textbook illustration of the adage that "art is the concealment of art." You interview, yes, and then you transcribe. But then the real work begins, work that, if you're doing it right, leaves no trace in the final product.

I almost wish this book had existed when I was heading off to college. There is just so much useful knowledge here about the idea that if you want it to be, the thing you love to do the most can, in fact, become your career, if you work at it. Most of us experience college as a sort of dress rehearsal for life, the play-acting before the real meat of the action begins. What that often means in practice is that you follow your heart for four years — playing in bands, acting in plays, pledging allegiance to one campus cause/club/group/discipline or another — and then you sort of say goodbye to all that and go out into the world and get a "real job," i.e., one that has very little to do with what actually excites, motivates and inspires you.

We find that, almost to a person, the future members of the State were determined to buck this trend. From the time they split off from existing campus sketch group the Sterile Yak and formed the New Group, which would become the State, they were basically operating as professionals. At one point during college, Michael Showalter transferred to Brown and got involved with the improv-comedy group there. "I was amazed at how little rehearsal we did," he recalls. "I was blown away by how not seriously they took it, because with the New Group, it was life and death, and I wanted it that way." Ken Marino echoes the sentiment (emphasis mine): "We probably rehearsed more than we needed to. ... We just wanted it to be right. We wanted to get the music of the comedy right."

The narrative arc from there is part living-the-dream success story and part watching-that-dream-distort cautionary tale. David Wain found an in at MTV, and after an apprenticeship period on another program, the group, all 11 members, landed their a show on the network. They had more or less full creative control; they had their own office/playroom overlooking Times Square ("We pushed all the desks to the wall, and we taped off a four square, and we wound up playing naked four square from time to time," says Marino); they were shooting on a soundstage with a real crew. Kevin Allison (a.k.a. "the Red Head Gay")"is in some ways the book's underdog protagonist. He was a key member of the group but always felt excluded from the State's "power center" — which at different times included Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, Michael Ian Black, Wain and Marino — and like Joe Lo Truglio, after the collective splintered, he had trouble finding his way both in the industry and in life. But at the start, he was unabashedly wide-eyed: Allison's enthusiastic recounting of the State's initial breakthrough at MTV is priceless:

"To have access to costume departments, to people working on your hair and makeup, to have a staff helping you create these ridiculous scenarios that you otherwise had been working on for the past several years in college by going to thrift stores to pick stuff up, it was like being a kid in a candy shop. It just felt so exciting to be twenty-two years old and treated like a creator, being treated like artists, and having people wondering what they could do for you next to help you create this joke that you thought of."
After a couple seasons' worth of glory, the classic years that all State fans remember so fondly, the group started to think about expanding its horizons. The idea, agreed upon by pretty much everyone, was that they would jump ship and head to a network. They left MTV, and after a tentative ABC deal fell through, they started a brief, ill-fated partnership with CBS that yielded only one barely seen late-night special. In the midst of all this, the group parted ways with longtime member Todd Holoubek. All of the above is depicted in the book as a sort of protracted, excruciating downfall/misstep, and parts of it are genuinely tough to get through, in an emotional sense. Nearly every member looks back on leaving MTV as a huge mistake:

"I just can't believe I was so stupid that I thought there was some upside to taking us to network TV. It shows how incredibly naïve we were and how cocky and arrogant because I legitimately thought that we would be a hit on network TV." —Lennon
Even harsher is the portrayal of Holoubek's exit. This phase was, to quote Blink-182, the group's "I guess this is growing up" moment, the point at which the principles of friendship and loyalty collided with the realities of business. See above re: "what happens when your passion becomes your profession," but there's also a "be careful what you wish for" aspect here, or to be less dramatic/moralistic about it, simply the idea that no matter what the endeavor, how closely related it is to your creative passion, there's always that cold-water moment of reality setting in. Garant recalls how other members of the group were questioning Holoubek's commitment:

"I remember not feeling supportive but being pretty angry that he was still there if he wasn't gonna commit to us one hundred percent. Not the most supportive friend mind but just a practical mind. I could tell that this wasn't what he was into anymore. We all kind of knew that, but he was coming from a place that was still this sort of 'friends doing this as a club.' It wasn't that anymore. It was a real job." —Garant
It gets better from there, but not before it gets worse. Lo Truglio describes how, while out drinking one night as the group was fraying, he had "a nervous breakdown, a legitimate one." Then a few members score a deal to make the show Viva Variety without the bulk of the group, a move that's seen as traitorous by some. The bad blood worsens.

There's a happy ending to all this, or rather, an assortment of happy endings. Many of the State crew reunite on the Wet Hot shoot, which all involved describe as blissful and idyllic and just generally a great hang. (This section reminded me a lot of the mood of Robert Altman sets evoked in Mitchell Zuckoff's incredible Oral Biography.) Lennon and Garant become a lucrative Hollywood screenwriting team. Allison starts his own successful podcast. Wain takes on the challenge of directing mainstream comedy vehicle Role Models. The whole group reunites for a triumphant performance at Tenacious D's Festival Supreme, where they debut new material and revive old favorites while poking fun at their own nostalgia. Here's Kerri Kenney-Silver on that show:

"I'm always just so concerned with the written, with the sketch and which wig I'm going to wear for this, and I forget that ninety percent of what's about to happen is that the audience is going to be involved. And that's a good thing, because you can't count on it in comedy. ... So it's always a pleasant surprise when they show up for you, and they're reacting in the way that you dreamed they would. I'd say that happened a million fold at that show."

There's so much surreality in this book, so many episodes that seem like fantasy experiences for the members of the group: the time Garant, Holoubek and director Michael Patrick Jann stopped in New Orleans during a roadtrip they took in the MTV show's heyday and ended up crashing Lollapalooza and holding court with State fans; the time the whole group went to the Bahamas, of all places, to record a comedy album that was shelved and only issued years later; the time Kenny-Silver started a band with her friend and eventually made an album produced by John Zorn. (I have to at least namecheck Craig Wedren, the Shudder to Think member and all-around avant-pop genius who also happens to be a lifelong friend of David Wain and the group's constant musical collaborator from their beginnings through the present day; throughout the book, he provides an entertaining and insightful outside perspective on the whole State circus.)

There's so much elation and heartbreak and bonding and splintering and closeness and wariness and praise and hurt feelings. And there is such a potent sensation of hard-won reward at the end, a reward that is still being paid out, the prize that you never quite receive in full but appreciate in fleeting moments like the one Kenney-Silver describes above. The moments not only when a given audience is "reacting in the way that you dreamed they would," when there's some external reinforcement and support and encouragement for what you have made, but also when you can quietly assess a project, especially a collaborative one, whatever that might be, when you can look back on it and say, simply, "We had an idea and we stuck to it and followed it through. And look where it led." Where it led for the members of the State was essentially to the founding of an entire school of comedy, an entire generation's worth of takes on how to be funny, now. A living family tree of humor, branching ever outward.

"One of the things that I think everybody feels, I know I do, is that when every one of us does well, it furnishes the larger legacy of the State," Black observes. "I think we all feel like there's this hometown that we come from, and we're all interested in the hometown getting its share of the glory."

We should all, anyone who's involved in any kind of creative work, be so lucky as to spring from this kind of core community, one that lasts, and that evolves, seeds, expands in ways you never could have predicted. All the truths of the State saga were there before, but Corey Stulce's project preserves them, interweaves them, underscores them, canonizes them, makes them public. As loving, selfless works of scholarship go — really the only ones worth undertaking, if you ask me — The Union of the State is a masterpiece, a gift not just to fans of these comedic masters but, I'd argue, to the artists themselves. Buy it, and laugh, and learn.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Unabashed: Why I Love Major-Label Post-Hardcore

The above video is a handy summation of many of the traits I value in rock music. Right now, I'm fixating on the performance of "Chinese Fork Tie," which begins at 12:14. (The sound quality isn't the greatest, so if you're not familiar with the song — from Jawbox's 1996 self-titled album, which, incidentally, turns 20 in about a month — I recommend checking out the studio version too.) From the start, you'll notice that drummer Zach Barocas is absolutely murdering his kit, pounding out this sort of asymmetrically strutting beat, lurching but danceable. A field of guitar noise from Bill Barbot; Kim Coletta's sly bass line; J. Robbins' shouts and slogans, darting and weaving. The whole band snapping into a snarling pre-chorus riff at 12:52, rising up to the glorious convulsion at 13:05.

Abandon juxtaposed with style, swagger, superhuman control. If the band as a whole were a drum — and given the prominence of Barocas within the overall Jawbox mix, that's not so far off — it would be a snare cranked up to a super-high tension. Their music stretches over a precise grid, then pops, explodes. But there is always an idea of rigor, not just in the performance but in the song itself. The music has purpose, drive, concision, gloss and big, bold hooks. Rhythmic tricks — stabs, chokes, thrusts, syncopations — juxtaposed with the naked, earnest, yearning beauty of Robbins' voice. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is, for me, where the band reached its peak; the performance above draws mostly from that album and the self-titled, an album I love just a hair less. These records and this video are objects of fascination and pleasure for me, emblems of a variety of rock music that seems to give me everything I want at once: power, manifested in enormous, earthshaking groove; the skillful deployment of noise, the scribble that only makes the precision sketch underneath seem all that much more purposeful; and the painstakingly shaped hook.

And all with an attitude of "Let's get on with it; let's make this great." The '90s were a time when we, as listeners and/or music-makers, were being saddled with a sort of aesthetic guilt trip. The hand-wringing over "selling out." The Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye finger-wagging. (I want to point out here that I'm an enormous fan of the latter, particularly Fugazi, and a skeptic as regards the former; he's engineered a lot of records that I love but I find his shtick, whether manifested in interviews or in his own music, pretty tiresome at this point.) This idea of the "post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy." OK, so maybe this system did chew up great bands and spit them out, but the fact of the matter is that certain of these bands realized their fullest potential via the major-label system.

To me, the bands most emblematic of what I'll call the genius of post-hardcore, the prime exponents of, to borrow a song title from Jawbox, this cruel swing — the bands best exemplifying the ruthlessness and the sensuality, the ferocity and the funk of this bold new aesthetic — were Jawbox, Quicksand and Helmet. And the albums on which each of these bands reached full flower, respectively, were major-label ones: the aforementioned For Your Own Special Sweetheart (Atlantic, 1994), Slip (Polydor, 1993) and Betty (Interscope, 1994). Three gleaming, slick triumphs with the bite intact. Beefed-up yet not defanged. Three albums that, quite simply, wipe the floor with the independent output that preceded it: Jawbox's Novelty (Dischord), Quicksand's self-titled EP (Revelation) and Helmet's Strap It On (Amphetamine Reptile). (Note: Meantime, Helmet's excellent major-label debut and the album that, to use '90s parlance, "broke" them, came in between Strap and Betty.) Novelty and Strap It On are each awesome albums, brimming with energy and potential, but for this listener, they're only appetizers for the entrée to come.

All three of those original labels — Dischord, Revelation, AmRep — are long-enshrined institutions of the American underground. It's always been cooler to say you liked bands like this back when, before they played 120 Minutes, before they posed for stylish promo photos and shot arty, dated-on-arrival videos, or went out with actresses. (And not all bands weathered the transition as well as the ones mentioned above; with all due respect to the band members' own assessments in Book, I think the Jesus Lizard did their best work before they signed to Capitol.) But the fact of the matter is that the aesthetics of certain bands benefited hugely from the major-label treatment, from almost cartoonishly huge production sounds, from a certain, again, gleaming slickness that only seemed to magnify the inherent grit, nastiness and soul of the music itself.

Helmet, "Tic":

Quicksand, "Lie and Wait":

Jawbox, "Motorist":

All three of these bands (and their fans) were blessed with extraordinary drummers, players who were essentially big-wallop funk specalists, equally invested in piledriving power and stylish groove. Barocas, Quicksand's Alan Cage and Helmet's justly celebrated John Stanier each contributed hugely to the durability of their respective bands' discographies. (It's no wonder that each was a huge inspiration to me when I started learning the instrument roughly 21 years ago, or that each remains a gold standard / basic-food-group staple today.) The frontmen — Robbins, the hugely underrated Walter Schreifels and Page Hamilton — were also brilliant, each in their own idiosyncratic ways, but each equally adept at barking or crooning, or, in Schreifels' case, doing a bit of both at the same time. I can sing every song from every one of these albums.

As the '90s wore on, these bands, and many of their contemporaries, would break up or shed crucial members. Major-label post-hardcore albums became a sort of in-joke among those who continued to frequent used-CD stores, where they were always in abundant supply. The cover art and the fonts looked dated; the song titles maybe a bit cheesy; and the CD booklets, filled with names of management, publicists and fancy legal teams now seemed like relics of a bubble waiting to burst.

But the music remains as bright, forceful and wildly enjoyable as ever. These bands dared to take an underground form and hone it, polish it, to see how big, bold and ballsy it might become. The best of the music that resulted is post-hardcore, turbo-charged, the sound of potential being fulfilled in a way that never would've been possible on Dischord or AmRep. Sure, it couldn't last — I'll be the first to admit that the respective follow-ups to Sweetheart, Slip and Betty are each, in their own way, less satisfying than what came before — but for a moment there, these bands had it all, unifying the spirit of the underground with the tools of the mainstream. Uncompromised, unfettered and most of all unabashed, this music will probably always speak to me, loud and clear.


A few other great major-label post-hardcore albums:

Shudder to Think, 50,000 B.C. (Epic, 1997)
Dischord labelmates of Jawbox, and like Jawbox, they did their best work in the major-label realm. Pony Express Record is an obvious classic, but I find myself more often reaching for the lesser-known follow-up, which heads in a glammier direction but still has that essential crunch.

Clutch, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths (Eastwest, 1993)

Another master drummer, Jean-Paul Gaster, coming into his own here. Monster grooves, quirky humor and plenty of hardcore-derived badassery/swagger. This album is a total delight. Clutch would head to a lot of interesting places after this, but in some ways, they never topped Transnational.

Into Another, Seemless (Hollywood, 1995)
Quicksand's former Revelation labelmates were always aiming at a huge, anthemic sound, and they achieved it on this great yet ill-fated outing. The rumbling bass, the soaring vocals — Seemless represents the unabashed quality I'm describing above in full flower.

See also my post on the interrelated "BP/progressive-grunge" school.



A lot of the above applies to the world of metal as well. Some of my very favorite metal albums of the period — Carcass' Heartwork, Morbid Angel's Covenant and Domination, even something like Melvins' Houdini — were the work of former underground kings flaunting their major-label-abetted polish and girth.