Friday, September 18th, 2009
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Difficult Listening Hour with Seth Colter Walls: Come Ye Despondent Cable News Watchers, And Restore Your Faith In Things

Difficult Listening HourSo have you ever started writing your annoyingly irregular music column for some website, and been sorta bummed about the long delay between your last post and the one you're about to work on, but still remain enthusiastic because you've lined up some sexily exclusive audio you're pretty sure people will be interested in… only to discover the same night you were gonna send everything over to Choire that the label in question released the mp3 for free on the internets in an uncoordinated panic over an illegal leak of the entire, soon-to-be-released album?

Oh, wait. Maybe not enough people can IDENTIFY with this opening. Well, don't worry, I found something else for us all to listen to. And probably I should back up and explain my aborted train of thought. But while I do that, go download what is, for my money, the highlight of Sufjan Stevens's BQE project over at the Asthmatic Kitty website, why don't you? The whole suite is worth hearing, but I actually enjoy the mp3 they've posted-"Movement VI-Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges"-more than anything else on that joint, which is why I'd wheedled with them to have it here first, supposedly.

You see, back a couple weeks ago when Glenn Beck was hyperventilating for no good reason about hidden communist propaganda in Rockefeller Plaza and getting an NEA communications officer reassigned for reasons that were pretty baroque in the first instance and which already no one remembers–because, honestly, by now this was 500 disingenuous cable news scandals ago–I maybe had a point to make about how difficult it would be, in practice, for the government to advance a particular social vision by throwing a few grants to ostensibly sympathetic artistes. All the best ones, like Sufjan, have really idiosyncratic ideas about The Big Conceptual Issues, such as the urban planning nightmare and dashed utopian vision that the BQE itself represents (and which Sufjan writes some pretty extensive liner notes about, in the non-leak CD/vinyl versions).

So, if you'll follow me, my idea was that I would post the song and say something about how there's an inexorable slipperiness in a lot of good-to-great art that often prevents us from reaching the government-aestheticized dystopia Glenn Beck is supposedly (but probably not really, in his off-camera life) afraid of–about how when you're Stalin and you think you're commissioning some tru, in-the-cut style Soviet propaganda, Eisenstein is secretly filming an allegory about what a brutal psychopath you are. (God, please no one say "What about Riefenstahl?" in the comments. This point I'm describing–the one I was going to make in the post that never got fully written–was just a general observation built around a hawt mp3.)

But so when the Sufjan exclusive slipped through my fingers, I started thinking that it was kind of a downer column anyways. There are lots of posts dissecting things Glenn Beck says, and even when they're really on-point, you still feel like there's a grimy coat of anti-meaning congealing over your eyeballs when you're done. And who wants that? From a music column, no less!

Before I knew it, Rush Limbaugh was already talking about how that school bus footage of some black kids beating on a white kid was Officially Brought To You By Your Racist Democratic Party Overlords. Next up was l'affaire Yeezy. (Or was the chronology in reverse?) And now we're into this fake czar scandal. So then I asked myself: have the last few weeks have been pretty exhausting and depressing, civil society-wise, or what? Thinking a little bit harder, I realized that what I really needed to do with the music column was tell the people about this one album of delightfully sophisticated yet breezily relaxing music that has, here of late, helped keep my blood pressure underneath the upper boundary of what's medically advisable.

And so … to complete the longest wind-up in history, I thought you should know that this record is Stefon Harris's "Urbanus"-which the vibes/marimba player recorded with Blackout, his jazz-meets-urban-styles band. There's a trailer for the record on YouTube, which is really just the album art animated over the first minute and a half of "Gone," the first cut.

Now, the thing about this tune? It is a re-working of "Gone Gone Gone" from the Gershwin brothers' "Porgy and Bess." That's right, folks, here we have blacks and whites doing it to death, inter-generationally. (The word "gully" even appears in that video, notice. Plus check that Rawkus-style typeface.) And it's not like this phenomenon is new, either. Here's Miles and Gil Evans (more color-blind collaborative love!) doing their arrangement of the original:

Perhaps I am a sap, but this actually makes me feel a little bit better about things. There's lots of other great stuff on Urbanus, including some vintage, Roger Troutman-style vocoder work that totally takes vocal pitch manipulation back from our contemporary crisis of AutoTune. And because the The Awl is so service-y, here's a full stream of another superb track from the album, titled "Tankified":

Stefon Harris: Tankified [Tankified, © Stefon Harris, from Urbanus]


Maybe just close your eyes and listen to it for seven minutes. I swear you'll feel better, not least because of that P-funkified coda in the last 90 seconds that features some way hip bass clarinet. Seriously, it's good.

And because I just mentioned P-Funk, here's another colorblind piece of musical genius. It's a version of The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," cut by George Clinton's guitar man Eddie Hazel on his 1977 record "Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs" (which coincidentally was also the name of my independent study course in high school, har-har). It's available on this girl's Imeem, for some reason, but the whole album's pretty cool and worth picking up on mp3 FOR ONLY SIX DOLLARS, in case you're the kind of person who's interested in having a good life.

Last but not least, in live music news, Japanese noise-pop psychedelics Yura Yura Teikoku will be playing Williamsburg tonight. And next week, the TALEA ensemble is going to execute a rare NYC performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Kontakte, for piano, percussion, and 4-channel electronic sounds.

Ohhh, you know … I think everything might actually turn out okay.



Previously: The BBC at the Stone, Newspeak, and Things To Hear This Weekend-Plus Bonus MIA Cover

Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.