Difficult Listening Hour: The BBC at the Stone, Newspeak, and Things To Hear This Weekend–Plus Bonus MIA Cover
By avant-music metrics, last night was pretty star-studded over at The Stone on Avenue C. Someone said Mike Watt of Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame was all up in the joint. And I spied Ches Smith from Xiu Xiu, in addition to club doyen John Zorn. Jenny Scheinman, a talent in way too many musical genres, was on the guest list. There were about a hundred or so other lesser-known folks crowding the tiny venue-which employs only a single, stationary electric fan for AC purposes. That fan at The Stone, it's almost like a really genius art installation that calls into question and then subverts the very construct of cooling off indoors during summer-that's how little it helps when the place is at standing-room capacity. But so: why were we all eager to endure that kind of punishment on a non-monsoon July 2009 eve? Maybe because Time Out and the Times both gave The Stone some love this week. Or was it due to the fact that last night's guitarist has a day job with Wilco? I can't say what impact these data points might have had in terms of the place being packed. I just listed them to get your attention, in case you normally tune out writing about avant-garde music. See how I did that?
Anyway, to cut to the chase, The BBC-a pick-up trio of all-star improv folks-tore up the set I attended, the first of two on the evening. Nels Cline was dropping some rock-improv science on his guitar, alongside downtown jazz powerhouse Tim Berne on the alto sax. Berne's a very talented master of hard-grooving experimental jam ceremonies-and here's a damn good Amazon mp3 value, by the way-though the half-hour marathons he curates don't always have as much structure as you might like. Last night, however, the drummer in the trio, Jim Black, shaded the rise and fall of the different movements with impressive drama. Maybe he was suffering from heatstroke, who knows? Meantime, Cline had a neat trick wherein he looped a watery guitar part through his electronic setup, and then used an octave pedal to get a distorted bass sound out of his guitar that he proceeded to play live over the loop. At other times, he went from solo line noodling to crunchy, unpredictable time-signature riffing that still kept heads bobbin'. There was flow there. Occasionally he had a scratch palette like Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, but instead of Bomb Squad-style guitar turntablism, it was spazzy like Christian Marclay. Meantime, Berne mostly kept to a subtle supporting role, coming out front most nakedly during the quiet interludes of the hour-long piece. Hopefully someone recorded this beast of a thing.
My point is it ruled. And despite the fact that the house was turning people away before the set started (and that there was a long line for the second set when I exited), I was sorta depressed like I always am when I realize that it's just a lot of the same people I've seen at shows like this before. An awful lot of musicians, for example. Also there's that one guy who owns Downtown Music Gallery, who's always on point at these things. And good for him. But the cultural activist in me would like to see this scene blow up a little bit more, bring in some more lay people. However I may have screwed up this review with obscure references-but click on the links! it's good stuff!-you'll have to take my word for it that this music is totally able to be enjoyed without having an advanced music degree. (I sure don't.) I mean, it's complicated-perhaps "difficult"-but it's not emotionally or physically remote. Plus: while this can be a wild scene, sonically speaking, the upside of an aesthetic upgrade on the classiness index is that you won't be at risk of 16 year-olds pouring beers on your head and punching you in the face, like at the dear departed Shank.
Despite all this, new music movements in both the jazz and classical worlds suffer from lackluster PR inroads when it comes to the non-specialized, young creative class. Before a sorta silly Q&A I conducted with the Fiery Furnaces at my paying gig (heh), I talked to Matthew Friedberger about this phenomenon. When the Furnaces played NYC recently, they had Newspeak, an alt-classical act, open for them. It was clear to me that the proper indie crowd that showed up for the Furnaces had a hard time determining whether Newspeak was cool or not. (They are.) This is because the instrumental exactitude that these kids carry over from their conservatory training is rather observable on stage. They don't look at all casual about playing their instruments. They look totally involved in a way that might be interpreted as embarrassing, depending on your poseur-related baggage. From where I stood in the crowd, I got the feeling their music-a brave mix of chamber pop, math-rock/metal riffing and more-wasn't really being heard. I told Matthew there had been some tension in the crowd's reaction to Newspeak, to which he replied: "good." He clarified, saying that he didn't want a hostile reaction, but he did hope to shake up the Furnaces' fanbase a little bit-to take them outside the indie blogosphere's comfort zone.
In that spirit, let me recommend a couple shows this weekend by players who merge instrumental prowess with sufficiently youthful brio. On Saturday, Talibam! is playing a record release party at Brooklyn's Market Hotel, during an event hosted by the new and interesting-looking music blog Visitation Rites. The group's latest record, Boogie In The Breeze Blocks, is a scuzzed-out pleasure boasting humor and heart. It actually reminded me of Chocolate Synthesizer-era Boredoms, except with lots more chops (and English nonsense skits, as opposed to Japanese ones). Then on Sunday, you've got a set by Mostly Other People Do The Killing, over at 269 E Houston. They're more straight-ahead as an outfit, but the group also has a usefully antagonistic relationship with jazz's legacy-both goofing on as well as revering a classic Ornette Coleman disc on the cover and title of their latest, This Is Our Moosic. Maybe give 'em a chance if you can't get into the Deerhunter/No Age/Dan Deacon pool party.
Wow, did you read all this? Here's your reward: a stream of an MIA cover by a jazz trio–just to make my point one more time. No, seriously, "Galang" works like this. It's from Vijay Iyer's Historicity, which is due in October, but is totally done already (and very good). I'll probably say more about this record later. But for now, please dig this one cut.
Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.