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Cryptacize is ALIVE! Decipher that code, yo!

Thursday, June 5th, 2008
Photo by Sarah Cass

Photo by Sarah Cass

Yes, of course I revel in the busy ambition of songwriters who seek to challenge themselves to endless boundaries, to jump fences, to scale large mountains. But what is the effort all about? Cryptacize yield to no such ambitions. They make music that is refreshingly coherent, stewed with deliberate melodies, a refinement of instrumentation, no excess, nothing wasted, nothing lost. Their new record “Dig That Treasure” offends many of my own musical impulses, the over-achieving bigger-is-better-shock-and-awe approach. Obviously I’m not offended, but rather in complete admiration of the band’s minimalist gorgeousness. These songs are not trifles, but rather cryptic haiku poems that expand toward a vast cosmic significance. But one doesn’t have to be a cartographer to appreciate these songs. Their surfaces shimmer to the ear, like magic crystals hanging in the windowsill.

Chris Cohen’s guitar shakes off all the fashionable amplifiers and effects pedals of his previous band Deerhoof. Nedelle Torrisi’s voice carries the uncomplicated clarity of a 1950s movie musical, shimmering to a soft vibrato, triggering a beauty that is as bold as it is matter-of-fact. No shock and awe needed here. Texturally, the songs present comic tragedies of everyday life. The Cosmic Sing Along. Playing the Evil Role in a Movie. False Pretenses. Dig That Treasure, i.e. mine for your greatest pleasures, or keep looking, or don’t give up! One never quite knows if the setting is a living room or a space station. And then there’s the loving 1960s pop sensuality, high school infatuation, boy crazy, dreams of true love, or other operatic propulsions escalading into open exclamations of “oh no!” The sweetness of each melody is never quite safe. It is like some chirpy Broadway musical prophesying the end of civilization. Somehow these sentiments entrench easily around other abstract, philosophical topics about heaven on earth, pocket change, or human fear. Lyrics here can be excerpted for an obtuse self-help calendar. “Every note is an unfinished song.”  “No one really knows me.” “No amount of power could ever replace the way he said my name.” To listen to Cryptacize is to embark on the act of digging great treasures. Patience and fortitude pays off in great golden swathes of fortune.

Sometimes I worry that the ever-increasing trend toward excessive innovation has pushed the art and music world into a slapstick exhibition of dog breeding, generating increasingly newer, more contemporary fashions: gothic folk, for one. Or Afro-beat Ivy League pop. Maybe this only reflects the inevitable merging of all cultures, in which art slowly becomes a least common denominator for the interchange of multiple civilizations coming together in one song. I don’t mind the intermarrying of ideas. This is the natural sequence of events. We are all better for it; it is fundamentally American. But sometimes the effort of innovation itself is just empty exertion, unspirited and unreal, bearing bad fruit. Cryptacize, of course, shirks all such ambition and seeks instead to “know thyself.” The record speaks of something much more present, in a careful tone, with the considerate enumeration of an enlightened monk who, after spending countless hours in isolation, in prayer, in thought, in meditation, decides instead to leave the monastery to play jazz guitar at Bibbi’s Bar and Grill on Main Street. Yes, of course, I’d go to that show.

Shapes and Sizes
Union Hall, Brooklyn, May 13, 2007

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Photo by Murat Eyuboglu
Union Hall’s interior design mixes its metaphors between home library and bocce ball club on one floor, parlor room and taxidermy museum in the basement. It is a haunted house. Dark wood paneling, Tudor portraits, Victorian lamps canvass the walls with the ominous formality of a funeral home. But then there is the candlestick, the sitting room, the loveseat. It’s like the board game Clue, only without all the violence. Enter Shapes and Sizes, stage left. With the din of a few guitars, a drum kit, an electronic organ, and voices that shriek and bark with the music of whales, they bring as much hostility as they can muster to an otherwise sedate, academic venue. This is an afternoon show, mind you, where listeners bring their children in strollers, sip mint juleps, and nod their heads at each other. We’re all friends. We’re doing the crossword puzzle. It’s Sunday afternoon. What I like most about Shape and Sizes is their disregard for politeness: no, they are not going to turn down their amps for the sake of a little afternoon sunshine. The songs they’ve created for their latest album are gargantuan pop songs deconstructed with a succession of ax hits, bombastic drum fills, reckless guitar. It’s gorgeous, vigorous noise. They hardly let the songs take flight before shooting them down with the cunning of a duck hunter. But this is where things get interesting. The jumping and barking of hound dogs, the breathless sprint to the mallard, slumped and bloodied in a sanctuary of water, the howling reeds, the ghost of the wind. Well, my metaphor gets the best of me here. In the song itself, it’s the clawing vocal antics, the swooning melodies, the drunk guitar, the drum kit thrown down the stairwell. These pageant tricks intercept every song, sometimes one, two, three times. The song is not the song. The song is the deliberate mangling, defacing, decomposing of the song, the consequential facelift of the song, the piecemeal song, the resurrection of the song, Frankenstein’s monster. It makes me wonder: what is a song without melody, without chords, without jurisdictions? But the car wreck of the song is, in fact, the song itself, the collapsible chord progression, the confrontation of interposing things, the cut-up crossword puzzle of music. They engage in this mess without a hint of angst or agony. It’s all played with laughing and stomping and clapping and singing, the unbridled determination of youth, the generous noise of the human heart. Everything else is just decoration. The song is no longer relevant anyway. But this is no longer the band’s selling point. Or any band’s selling point. It’s more satisfying, instead, to hear a song take itself beyond the recognition of itself, the black hole, the vacuum of space, where all sound eats itself. This is where we find rest and recognition: we begin to know each other and ourselves with the gratitude of mother and child, in the heart of the noise of the song, the quiet noise of compassion humming itself to sleep.

Tribute to Rafter

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

I’ll never forget my first impression of Rafter. He seemed a bit of a mad wizard that only ate raw foods and had an inexhaustible pool of musical knowledge. He had us over after a show in San Diego. At the time, my
listening had hit a bit of a drought, and Rafter managed in one night to introduced us to The Shaggs, The Slits and Elton and Betty White. Two of which have become staples in my listening, and all three of which I love. But Rafter’s musical knowledge is by no means confined to art rock and outsider music, he knows the bridge to that one-hit-wonder, or that awesome gated drum beat that was at the beginning of that song by those guys to used to be in that other band. Next time I’m in San Diego I think I’d like to go to Karaoke bar with him.

It wasn’t until we came back to San Diego a month later that I got a more leveled impression of him. He seemed less mad, more warm. A constantly generous host, and a great father. So I guess that’s it… no roast.

My Brightest Diamond
Tonic in NYC, Jan. 17 2007

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

The immediate distraction at the recent My Brightest Diamond show in New York is the number of people I know. An anxious thought seizes me: Is this another night of Friend Rock? Or is it just a small world after all? I take stock of the familiar faces, and try to be cordial. Shara’s lawyer’s husband is there, who also happens to be my lawyer’s husband. What a coincidence. The My Brightest Diamond string quartet, mingling in the corner, has toured with me in the past; they are like old friends from summer camp. We briefly nod hellos, but they nervously turn back to their scores and their set lists. College friends show up, with exotic girlfriends; the fashion designer friend is there, checking the weave of the t-shirts at the merch table; there is the documentary filmmaker friend, the avant artist friend, the video artist friend, the performance artist friend, the Presbyterian pastor friend and his wife, who I also count as friend. It feels like a high school reunion. I would like more than anything in the world to hole up in the coat check and read the New York Times Magazine, but that would be unfriendly.

Opening the set (with unexpected gusto) are violinist Soovin Kim (a musical prodigy who also happens to be a Cub’s fan) and pianist Jeremy Denk playing selections by Charles Ives. This, thankfully, dampens the party vibe in the room. All eyes (and ears) are turned to the rapid, successive, wild, and glamorous twists and turns of what Ives himself called (self-consciously, deprecatingly) the “weak sister” of violin sonatas. Kim and Denk obviously disagree, and tackle the performance with unflagging delight. Notwithstanding the sublimity of Ives, it is also just nice to hear this music in a club, or any music in a club, without the aid of a P.A. Am I a simpleton for making note of that small appreciation?

When Gabriel Kahane (talented pianist, singer-songwriter, composer, actor, and humorist) takes the stage (with the aid of the P.A.), we are taken out of the music academy and dropped center stage in some avant-garde off-Broadway piano bar. Some of his songs are deceptively pretty: piano pop ballads that, at first glance, resemble something by Elton John, but the key changes and time signatures suggest the dexterity of someone who may have spent his formative years at Interlochen. So many notes! To be fair, Gabriel’s resume rivals anyone’s in the room (except, of course, those of Kim of Denk). His father is a reputable conductor, and Gabriel’s own achievements include commissions, awards, and badges of honor in musical theaters and uptown orchestras across the country. But no one in this room is taking stock, it seems, except me. Gabriel’s last piece, a meandering lieder based on Craigslist entries, is his greatest achievement. Later, by the bar, I tell him it would make a stunning Broadway show. Better than Cats. I regret saying it. Gabriel looks mortified. Have I dampened the party vibe even further?

My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden has recorded, performed and collaborated with me so much for the past few years that I often take her for granted. This is the real shame of being so entrenched in the work of music: you often fail to stop and relish those around you. For tonight, surrounded by her friends and fans, I am reminded of the hushed awe and astonishment her music provokes in the listener, myself included. Shara is one of a kind. With the elegance and responsibility of a great performer, she reconciles the academia of Ives with the jousting of Broadway without even trying. Her songs draw you in, settle in your gut, stick with you for days, but without the ordinary flourishes of pop music, or the formal pageantry of classical music. How does she do this? I think it has more to do with what she doesn’t do. Her voice does not carelessly amble to virtuosic heights, like so many other capable singers, but she will turn an extraordinary, operatic phrase in the subtlest of places, just to let you know that she can. Her songs aren’t showy, explicit, or commandeering, but, rather, they confide in you mysterious secrets that make you feel set apart for a special task. By the end, you are enraptured in a world of queens and close neighbors, workhorses and rabbits, crystal glasses and cardboard boxes.

For tonight, Shara plays a scattering of old guitars, a thumb piano, and a grand piano, accompanied only by strings. I’ve heard some of these songs a hundred times over the past two years, with a hundred different configurations: bass, drums, Wurlitzer, wine glasses, beat-box. But tonight, the clarity and austerity bring to light the versatility and quiet virtuosity of the songs. Some of them (“If I were Queen” and “Gone Away,” especially) feel classic—songs that may have been sung by Frank Sinatra or Nina Simone. I am also struck, of course, by Shara’s prudence for string instruments. Unlike my own scampering arrangements, hers take their time with the push and pull of the tides, honoring silences, generating dreamscape chord patterns that pull you down below sea level. At the end of the night, after the jibber jabber of Ives and off-Broadway and old friends, we are all relieved (and rejuvenated) to have shared those silent underwater spaces in Shara’s music. To many of us, it is this music of the quiet, solitary imagination that sticks with you for life.

photo credit: Matt Wignall

[Flickr photoset]

The Curtains, Jan 17. 2007, The Cake Shop, NYC

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

How do you leave one of the most innovative rock bands at the peak of its career to pursue a solo project? Fortuitously, perhaps; or with the deepest of conviction. This is the conundrum I contemplate, for better or for worse, as I make my way down into the musty squalor of a basement known as the Cake Shop to see The Curtains play on a stage the size of a floor rug lit only with Christmas lights. Well, it isn’t the Hollywood Bowl, opening for Radiohead, etc., but The Curtains look proud and heroic in their clean-cut, California short-sleeve accouterments. And, to be fair, The Curtains was never meant to be a Deerhoof side project. Thankfully, the songs they are about to perform never even have to pose this argument. For now, they are doing a quick sound check, giving auspicious looks to the monitors, adjusting mike stands and amplifiers with the seriousness of car mechanics. When they are ready to begin, band-leader and master-mind Chris Cohen gives a courteous nod to his resourceful cohorts (talented Nedelle Torrisi and Annie Lewandowski), and they step into the kind of music that makes you feel good about the world around you. Well, it’s been a long time for many of us, the feeling good about the world, I mean. The crowd here is a modest, eager, enthusiastic bunch; but they evoke in their cheers and whistles the kind of satisfaction of seeing something that is both spontaneous and carefully crafted, like coming upon a surprise party with a look of stupefaction even though you knew all along it was planned

Onstage, the Curtains have two guitars, an auto-harp, a floor tom, miscellaneous percussion, a Nord Electro, but not much else. What I appreciate in this set is the absolute clarity of sound. Every note, every harmony, every change of key, every shifting of the tempo feel necessary. Nothing is wasted. For those of us who have swooned through Deerhoof shows in the past, marveling at the adept theme-and-variation acrobatics in Chris Cohen’s guitar work, it is a rare treat to see him now, at half the pace, shuffling over the neck of his guitar, lumbering, taking his time, like a careful square dancer, letting the music speak for itself, letting things resonant. Even when he puts down the guitar and thumps the floor tom for a few songs, he does so in a way that suggests unusual talent. Some of the creative decisions may be self-conscious, or just incidental: the absence of effects pedals and a drum kit, for instance. But I appreciate the change of scenery, even if I can’t help but constantly make comparisons to his former band.

Deerhoof, in literary terms, has always been an exercise of provocations, cryptic codes and catch phrases stretched out into extraordinary epic adventures ending in a series of exclamation points. The Curtains, however, are more like carefully edited found-poems, taking familiar, ordinary, everyday expressions that, when re-adjusted just the right way, begin to suggest profound explications about the universe. The songs do not clamor about their wisdom with a series of expository fits; instead, they end with a row of meandering ellipses, trailing off, pointing out other possible explanations. The analogy is awkward. But I can’t help but feel enthralled by music that takes language and grammar seriously. Chris Cohen is a true linguist, not even so much in how he shapes his lyrics, but in how he shapes melody, counter-balancing each phrase with muted guitar lines and pillowy chord changes that feel less like musical stunts and more like necessary punctuation. His voice is unaffectedly human; in speaking, it is the voice of a helpful bank teller–but in song it extrapolates extraordinary melodies like a French horn with magic powers. Why is it that great singers often write such ordinary melodies while ordinary singers find themselves mountain climbing great heights of melody? Perhaps every Curtains song could be explained by this paradigm: the Clark Kent/Superman archetype. But that would be pushing it into the world of cartoons, where it doesn’t belong. And by the end of a brief but generous set, I get the feeling that Chris does not need magic powers, x-ray vision, or a flashy monogram on his chest. His songs are human, humane, rooted in the world, in everyday life of city streets and swimming pools and front porches, where Superman is no longer needed.

[The Curtains at Asthmatic Kitty]
[The Curtains homepage]
[The Curtains' tourdates]
[Deerhoof homepage]
[Review of Clavia Nord Electro at Sound On Sound]
[The Cake Shop homepage]

MP3s from The Curtains
"World’s Most Dangerous Woman"
"Invisible String"
"Fletcher’s Favorite"
"Go Lucky"

Roy Haynes Quartet live at the Mondavi Winery Center, Davis, California

Friday, January 5th, 2007

These guys ruled! The Torrisi family took me – it was called "A Celebration of John Coltrane." I was excited to get out, even though the title of the event didn’t exactly peak my interest. While I have enjoyed Coltrane as much as the next person, I don’t much go for the tributes and things like that, so my expectations were low. I was pretty happy just to be there with such excellent company. And knowing how much Nedelle’s parents, jazz buffs that they are, would enjoy hearing the concert, that was enough for me.

Ravi Coltrane’s quartet was first. They were fine. Afterwards I said to myself, "Well done." Ravi talked a little too much about his dad, referring to him as John Coltrane, which made me sad. It was so impersonal. He explained his music a lot too, which I also found unfortunate. I mean, he’s a good saxophone player!

But anyway, then was the intermission. Nedelle and I wandered through the lush lobby, using the Mondavi’s state of the art restrooms and even sampling a little of the 2006 cabernet (good!) whilst discussing what we had just seen. We both agreed these young jazz scholars were learned musicians, but what we were really hoping for was a rhythm that was a little more swinging and syncopated.

But up next was 81 year old drumming legend Roy Haynes – one of the last surviving musicians who can link us back up in person with the original bebop generation (even earlier?). I really had no idea what he’d been up to all this time, so I was going in without any expectations. I mean, I would have understood if he’d been all tired. I would have been sad if his drum set was all huge and all he did was keep time, but I still would have enjoyed it, just seeing someone his age, and with all of his experience, still making music. But he went so beyond that! I didn’t care how old he was or even who he was – that band’s music was amazing. His feel on the drums, his subtlety, his total lack of self-consciousness, everyone’s skill and empathy for each other – what a joy it was to be there with them!

Roy Haynes is a musical treasure. He belongs at the Mondavi Center because he’s aged like a fine wine. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and when we left I felt totally fulfilled and invigorated. Roy seemed so glad to be playing and he was so concentrated on listening to his fellow musicians. His tempos flowed organically from section to section and had lots of subtle little shifts. Their music was off the grid, it was alive. It must have been hard to stay together, but they made it seem so easy – truly a natural wonder.

The show started off with a lively little, almost Ornette-sounding piece, went through a bunch of standards, a ballad or two (Coltrane’s Naima) and peaked with a longer piece where Roy came out from the drum set and just beat-boxed on the mic and walked up to everyone in the band, accompanying them only on the sticks. Several times during the show he did what I least expected, which was to not even play at all. It was unusual to hear in a quartet of drums, piano, bass, and alto sax – the drums just dropped away and everyone left naked there for a while. And when he did that he literally jumped off of his kit! I really liked that and it looked so cool – he was like ‘I don’t even need these drums.’

I just want to say ‘Keep on going Roy!’ I am so glad Nedelle talked me into going. Thanks Nedelle!

drawing of Roy Haynes by Chris Cohen