AMN Reviews: Chinese Cookie Poets + Nicolau Lafetá – Danza Cava

By Dan Coffey

If you’re a committed seeker of music that is as exciting as it is unclassifiable, you can only hope to be able to stumble across a band like the Chinese Cookie Poets maybe a dozen times in your life, if you’re lucky. I had plenty of reservations going into this listening experience, as I tend to recoil when told “you’re gonna love this,” (it’s part of the same coding in my DNA that makes me seek out this kind of music in the first place). These reservations were unfounded, as it turns out. I’m happy to have gone into the short CCP discography and come out the other end a changed listener.

So, what’s the big deal? When discussing any kind of art that’s as different as this is, it’s forgivable to grasp for comparisons as reference points. And indeed, on the surface, they do bear a resemblance to certain rock trios that lie in the avant-garde end of the spectrum: Massacre comes to mind, as does the group the (EC) Nudes.  To compare them to any number of “post-rock” bands would do them a disservice – there is just so much more going on.

The bass player often has a sound reminiscent of John Wetton during his stint in King Crimson, but it’s as if he was under the spell of Derek Bailey instead of Robert Fripp, and the guitarist intersects in a musical Venn diagram with Fripp, Bailey, and Fred Frith, but is completely unique. I don’t have words to describe the drummer. It’s not all “Rock in Opposition” or out-improv, though. The noise aesthetic plays a huge role in the CCP sound – you can hear The Boredoms and Melt-Banana, and there are the (relatively) quieter moments that might remind one of the Minutemen.

Chinese Cookie Poets hail from Rio de Janeiro, and consist of Marcos Campello on electric guitar, Felipe Zenícola on electric bass, and Renato Godoy on drums.  Their first recording was a self-titled EP released in 2010, which consists of edited pieces that are mixtures of composition and improvisation. Their second release, Dragonfly Catchers and Yellow Dog, was also an EP, this time of live performances, slightly more brutal in the attack, and with somewhat longer songs.

CCP released a “full-length” (23 minutes!) album in 2012 titled Worm Love on the Sinewave Records label, and it is by far the most engaging, confounding, and harrowing release I’ve heard by anybody in quite some time. The rhythm section is relentless, teasing the listener into thinking they’re about to settle into a familiar rock groove before taking a sharp turn into the unexpected. They’ve upped the effects on this album, too: lots of “glitches” and juddering stop/start edits color the already dense canvas, especially in the “Three Worms” trilogy. Oh, and some guy named Arto Lindsay adds his DNA to one of the tracks.

So, I’ve told you all that to tell you this: the brand new Chinese Cookie Poets album is excellent, in a spacious and sublime way that marks quite a departure from their earlier albums, if only in their decision to let silence play a much larger part In their songs. The unabashed experimentalism is still there, but it’s not as rampant. Doubtless this is because they’ve included a fourth musician on their latest album, Danza Cava, out this month on Mansarda Records: Nicolau Lafetá on trumpet.(In their live performances, they frequently play alongside a fourth musician, so this is nothing terribly new to the band.)  Lafetá drives the band into territory they don’t seem to be used to going to (on the song “Tiao Yue,” guitarist Campello’s playing is comparatively gentle. For all the comparisons above, AMM can be added to this one. CCP do bring the noise, to be sure, but they are generous with the space, allowing Lafetá to shine in his own way, a sort of mixture of Steve Lacy “freak register” skronking as well as less outré playing. The guitar, and the effects thrust upon it, makes it a delicious companion to Lafetá’s blowing, and while Zenícola and Godoy never let you forget the mayhem they’re capable of, they opt for a more serene backdrop.

(See http://chinesecookiepoets.bandcamp.com/ for samples of their previous recordings)

AMN Reviews: Zeena Parkins and the Adorables – The Adorables

adorable4by Dan Coffey

Zeena Parkins and the Adorables – The Adorables (Cryptogramophone CG147)

Superlatives would fail me here if I were to resort to them. So I won’t say that this is the career-defining Zeena Parkins recording. Or that this album takes the best of her compositional skills and harp prowess (you can hear shades of Ursa’s Door as well as hints of the beauty of her playing as far back as the News from Babel albums with Chris Cutler and Lindsay Cooper), and places them alongside young musicians who are as clued in to her unique vision as anyone could hope to be.

I’m talking about percussionist Shayna Dunkelman and electronics manipulator Preshish Moments, who, along with Parkins, form Zeena Parkins and the Adorables. This band seems to have achieved an empathy that none of Parkins’ other groups has ever quite achieved (though, of course, her longtime collaboration with Ikue Mori is a different story).

What strikes the ear in the first few minutes of the opening track — the crazy quilt tour de force “Constructed” — is how polished and at the same time fresh the recording sounds. What follows, and lasts through the whole album, is the astonishing melding of Parkins’ and Dunkelman’s playing — usually only slightly electrified harp and vibraphone, respectively, and the incongruous electronic interjections made by Moments which are the ingredients that shouldn’t work, but do anyway.

Nothing stays the same for very long in any track on the Adorables album, but it’s not for lack of attention span. The quick changes from intricate composition to improvisational noise (an AMM comparison would not be far off the mark when describing the middle section of “Raking”), are key to Parkins’ aesthetic, but never more fully realized than here, on The Adorables.

AMN Reviews: AMM – Two London Concerts

by Dan Coffey

The latest AMM release finds the enigmatic collective stripped down to just two of the long-term collaborators: John Tilbury on piano (occasionally attacking it from the inside), and Eddie Prévost on (mostly bowed) percussion. While guitarist Keith Rowe is missed, the new disc, Two London Concerts, more than makes up for his absence in both its lyricism and astoundingly intense percussive interplay.

As the title drily indicates, the disc is comprised of two performances, each running just over 30 minutes. The first performance opens with several jarringly loud and unsettling chords from Tilbury, eventually followed by Prévost’s equally discomforting metal on metal bowing.  The chords are abrupt calls; the bowing is a sustained response that eventually moves into the forefront while Tilbury relaxes a bit and explores the keyboard with less tension.  (Although the antithesis of Morton Feldman in terms of sheer volume, one can hear, even more than usual, a stylistic similarity to the music of the late composer in the long spaces between chords that Tilbury employs, perhaps a nod to the interpretations of Feldman’s piano compositions that Tilbury recorded for the London Hall label in 2000.)

The thrilling nightmare of percussive piano and time-stretched percussion continues for fully 10 minutes in the first performance before the two performers change direction. The music is quieter with more attention paid to percussion as a time-keeper than a time-stretcher, and Tilbury’s playing becomes much more lyrical, and less chord-heavy. Relative quiet, not without tension, continues, with all sorts of sonic input from Prévost embellishing Tilbury’s more subdued playing.

The second performance, altogether calmer, and longer, shows Prévost expanding his palette, though there’s still plenty of bowing, and Tilbury, while mostly playing subtly and relatively quietly throughout, nonetheless takes the opportunity to dive into the innards of the piano towards the end of the performance, adding another layer of percussiveness to one of two performances that confound the ear’s perception of what is and isn’t percussive – the instruments that usually mark time end up stretching it. This is one of the most exciting and vital recordings to be released under the AMM name in quite some time.

AMN Reviews: Paul Lytton and Nate Wooley – The Nows

By Dan Coffey

The nucleus of musicians on The Nows is percussionist Paul Lytton and Nate Wooley, an up-and-coming trumpet legend who is also credited on this album with “amplifier.” Spread out between two discs, The Nows essentially contains three different groups, each with their own distinct personality.

The Nows covers two Lytton/Wooley performances from their 2011 US tour. The first disc captures them playing as a duo in a 35 minute free-jazz piece that veers from high-energy to calm concentration, but always with the thrill of not knowing what’s coming next. The next two tracks on the disc, which was from a concert given at The Stone in New York City, feature Ikue Mori alongside the duo, credited with playing “computer.” Mori’s playfully anarchic presence seems to cause Lytton and Wooley to sit back and listen more than they might have otherwise. And, of course, with Mori’s penchant for all manner of sounds, including ersatz percussion, it’s delightfully difficult at times to pick out who is playing which instrument.

The second disc also opens with Lytton and Wooley performing as a duo, this time at The Midnight in Chicago, 14 days after the concert featured on the first disc. This time we’re treated to two duo performances – the first about half the length of the previous disc’s duo performance and the second a powerhouse four-minute workout that may make one wish it was the 35-minute duo track on the previous disc (depending, of course, on one’s temperament at the time of listening). These two duo tracks are followed by three with the addition of Ken Vandermark, playing clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor and baritone saxophone. As might be expected given Vandermark’s presence, Wooley and Lytton largely dispense with the concentration and tentative silences that are a defining characteristic of their playing alongside Mori. The interesting thing about these two is that, even before the third musician enters the field, they seem to have already altered their dynamic to allow for that musician’s presence. The Nows is a fantastic study in contrasts, from the whimsy and delicacy (and occasional noise!) of the concert with Mori, to the high-speed blustering conversation with Vandermark. This two-disc set showcases two generations of free improvisers (Lytton, of course, has been around for decades) closing the generation gap and making extraordinary music as a duo and with two of the finest American improvisers.

AMN Reviews: Horsebladder – Not I’ll Not

by Dan Coffey

Not I’ll Not, released on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label, is short as albums go these days, but Elaine Kahn, recording under the name Horsebladder, is adept at stretching time. “Breathing not metronome,” it says somewhere on her website, by way of describing her music, and there is plenty of room and time for some deep breaths here.

This sort of deep breathing doesn’t lend itself to calmness or relaxation, however – it’s more like the deep breath you take when the doctor has a stethoscope on your skin. The keyboards, percussion, and vocals, whether looped or played straight, at first sound deliberately cold and distant.  It’s only after a few minutes that you begin to realize that these songs have an almost alarming depth of sensitivity. Rather than being coldly unemotional, Not I’ll Not captures what it feels like to be emotional and feel cold. Which isn’t to say that Kahn doesn’t have a jaundiced sense of humor: she interpolates the chorus of The Foundations’ “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” into the end of the song “Lashe.”

Kahn does what many artists have tried to do and failed: produce a somber and spare album that doesn’t seem trite, ersatz, or forced. With odd rhythms, multilayered vocals that are alternately clear and unintelligible, and drums that stop and restart time as often as keep it, Elaine Kahn’s second Horsebladder album situates itself nicely in the position where pop, avant-garde, and lo-fi minimalism meet.  It’s not the easiest of listens, but it will get under your skin.

AMN Reviews: Cabinet of Natural Curiosities – Searchlight Needles

by Dan Coffey

“Little Ice Age,” the track that opens Cabinet of Natural Curiosities’ album Searchlight Needles (For Arbors/For Satellites, 2012), is a song that is reminiscent of prayer. In it, Jasmine Dreame Wagner, the “aka” behind this project, pleads, cajoles, and invokes with her voice, which is occasionally hushed, but always filled with the confidence of a seasoned folk singer, as if attempting to call the album into being. For added effect, Wagner wraps her often-multitracked voice in similarly multitracked acoustic guitars that are often as unsettling as they are soothing.

The paradox of Searchlight Needles is, in fact, that it unsettles as it soothes. Wagner’s lyrics work powerfully with and against the music (both in sonics and meaning), and her seemingly endless palette of sounds rise up to provide counterpoint to the guitar-based melodies, and to occasionally override them, bringing the music into the realm of noise, most notably in the inexplicably bizarre and effective final two minutes of the gorgeous love song “For Sparrow.”

Wagner seems especially sensitive to dualities. The song “Sun,” is one of the more straightforward ballads on the album. “Moon,” which comes a little later, is a tense, taut, song where acoustic guitar and quiet electric guitar shredding that sounds like Derek Bailey experimenting with Frippertronics circle around each other. Then there are the back to back songs “Glass,” and “Grass”: the former stretching out over ten minutes, with wind chimes and bass kicking things off before  bashing drums and reverb-drenched electric guitars come in along with a spoken word recitation that remains audible but becomes less and less intelligible as the song careens onward. Towards the end, the drums and bass drop out, and we’re left with monstrous and very satisfying guitar feedback and gradually fading vocal loops, to end with more specimens pulled from Wagner’s sonic bag of tricks. If “Little Ice Age,” is the song that calls the album into being, “Glass” is the fullest realization of what Wagner can do with everything that she’s summoned. “Grass,” by contrast, is a short song with a comparatively direct lyric that eschews the gentler acoustic guitar for the louder, noisier electric guitar of “Glass.”

“Fabulist Decay” is an instrumental that puts Wagner unequivocally into musique-concrete territory, and the album closes with a return to the odd folk spiked with noise that began the album. Cabinet of Natural Curiosities continues in a recent tradition of exploring what it means to embrace the tradition of folk and the newness of cutting-edge music.  Unabashedly romantic, spiritual, and mystical, and yet cliche-free and balancing avant-garde tendencies without a “weird for weird’s sake” approach, Wagner has created a semi-masterpiece here. Highly recommended for intrepid contemporary folk and/or avant-garde fans with headphones and a penchant for walking around lakes during summer nights. Or just headphones.

AMN Reviews: Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers

Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Dan Coffey

There’s no getting around the obvious: at four full-length CDs, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is ambitious and daunting. As the title implies, Smith is giving musical context to the trials that African Americans have had to endure throughout the history of the United States. This is not operatic in nature, however, and there is no storyline. What we have are four discs full of compositions with titles like “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954,” and “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The good news is that this set can be listened to at one’s leisure, one song at a time and not necessarily in any order. It takes time for Smith’s music to sink in – although it is not terribly complex, it does unfold slowly. Many of the compositions extend to the fifteen-minute mark, and only very occasionally come back to a stated theme. The compositions are performed  by either Southwest Chamber Music with Smith on trumpet, or a smaller combo known variously as the Golden Quartet or Golden Quintet, depending on whether one or two of the drummers are involved. The drummers in question are Susie Ibarra, who gives the music a welcome texture that juxtaposes nicely with the occasional overly formal sounding bombast, and Pheeroan akLaff, who has a more traditional sound, but, as evidenced in the spine-tingling opening to “Thurgood Marshall,” where he duets with Smith, he is capable of playing “out.” Pianist Anthony Davis and bassist John Lindberg are no slouches, either. Davis, in particular, can go from an easy-going lilt to ominous stabs that might remind one of Mal Waldron. The tracks that feature the Southwest Chamber Music group, with all of its technical prowess and commanding presence, might remind the listener of a PBS documentary rather than a live conversation, which is what Smith’s small combo provides. in its comparatively more visceral and emotional interpretation of the themes that Smith set out to explore.

AMN Reviews: Van der Graaf Generator – ALT

Van der Graaf Generator – ALT (Esoteric / Antenna, 2012)

By Dan Coffey

Van der Graaf Generator
Van der Graaf Generator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few people would expect a Van der Graaf Generator album so soon after last year’s career highlight, A Grounding in Numbers. Even fewer would expect a VdGG album with no lyrical or vocal input from Peter Hammill. No, Hammill did not quit the band – this is just VdGG changing up their game again. ALT is the realization of what many fans have long thought the band capable of, based on teasing snippets recorded at various points throughout their career: a wild, careening, album’s worth of “songs,” soundscapes, and improvisations.

The album opens with “Earlybird,” a pleasant matching of Evans’s percussion and Hammill/Banton-produced birdcalls. The sonics here are so rich and enveloping that a listener might feel as if an airlock has sealed behind them. Sudden barometric change: strange humidity. The world of the “alt” Van der Graaf Generator beckons.

The rest of the tracks range from blips that pass by in under sixty seconds to a few elongated pieces that push the ten-minute mark. Within these recordings, it is fun and satisfying, to a degree, to enter into the “who played what?” game.  (The VdGG/Peter Hammill fan might remember a rather obscure album by Peter Hammill and Guy Evans titled Spur of the Moment, released in 1989, on which both musicians made use of the same sampled sounds, so it was often impossible to tell whether it was Hammill or Evans on “drums” or “keyboard.” A similar effect is produced on ALT. In fact, one of the tracks on ALT, “Repeat After Me,”  would not sound at all out of place on that album.) While there are some passages where it is obvious which band member is performing on which instrument, particularly in Evans’s case, the experience of listening to ALTis heightened when one stops trying to distinguish between the contributions of the members and take in the music as a production of a singular entity.

There are internal and external reference points throughout the album. The second track, “Extractus,” features Hammill’s inimitable confident yet tentative style of guitar playing that sounds as if he’s still trying to find his way out of the 1976 epic “Meurglys III, the Songwriter’s Guild,” with sympathetic organ accompaniment from Banton, and incongruously bright and martial drum rolls from Evans. Things get weirder from there, perhaps no more so than the third track, “Colossus,” which assaults the senses like the soundtrack to a 3D-surround film of an astral rollercoaster ride.  It also features a lot of faux-brass and woodwind sounds – an homage to their former bandmate, saxophonist/flautist David Jackson, who left the band almost as soon as it reformed in 2005? Or a conciliatory gesture to fans? Perhaps even a display of bitterly ironic musical commentary. “Midnite or So” is a tribute to, and a reworking of, the Thelonious Monk classic “Round Midnight.”

As Hammill says in the press release, the closest thing to the music here is the second disc of their 2005 album, Present. But that really doesn’t even come close, as  disc 2 of Present is a series of improvisational pieces firmly grounded in the guitar/keyboard, organ, drums, and brass/woodwind lineup, whereas ALT is comprised of all manner of sounds from a much wider, alien, even, palette.

ALT is another side of a band that is already way out in left field in terms of its approach to songwriting and performing. If you’re looking for a VdGG album packed with riffs, odd time signatures, and the poetic and portentous lyrics and vocals of Peter Hammill, you’ll need to wait for the next one, or revisit the back catalog. This is Van der Graaf Generator reveling in a world that is strange even to them.