My 2008 was rife with Big Sound and Big Message, with the Hold Steady's unsubtly regaling the exploits of teenage wasteland coiling up nicely with the political desperation/optimism of my fellow lefties. Everybody was getting involved and telling you how involved they were. Even the marketing tool that is Facebook was transformed from gossipy snark engine to tables set up outside the student union, asking you to take a pamphlet. And really, it was about time; not giving a shit had really run its course this time around. Now in the golden era of maybe stopping this here war and waiting for my bank to collapse, I seek subtlety, not the roar of the lion, but the throb of the undercurrent. I'm trading the bellowed anthems for the 60-cycle hum, the shout of one man for the chatter of the universe.
Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street
Jon Hassell is a master at unmastering the trumpet, in that he continues the Miles Davis practice of removing the sharp edges of his instrument to such a degree that Hassell's processed horn often resembles the sound of ether passing through a hidden conduit. He knows his way around sound, having studied under Stockhausen and having worked with La Monte Young and Terry Riley, but on Last Night and most of Hassell's material, it is the diffuse jazz of Davis' In a Silent Way that forms the launch pad of Hassell's quiet gliding spacecraft. The tunes on Last Night seem more dreamt than heard: rhythms become something barely more susceptible than static on the line, the trumpet fuses with thick azure keyboards like mutating deep sea mystery fish, engaging in the occasional bout of bioluminescence down there in the still dark. I keep thinking I recognize a tune emerging out of this - Duke Ellington's chestnut "Caravan" does exactly that during the expanse of "Abu Gil" - but when you are this deep in the sea of sound, it's not the geographical features but the pressure, the sheer presence of water that occupies your mind. In my mind, Hassell's sound has not outwardly changed since discovering what he calls "The Fourth World" - a place where the historical and metaphysical converge, starting with his albums in the early 80's under Brian Eno's burgeoning ambient music community, but then in the shadow world of ideas, thoughts don't ever exactly change but are instead coaxed toward a quiet personal truth, and I believe Hassell is in close orbit of his.
Listen on lala
Merriweather Post Pavillion
I am not sure if anyone out there has heard of this exciting little combo or this intriguing little record of op-art both inside and out. I dunno, maybe there was a leak and some of you happened upon it. In case that you have encountered this group before and thought ya know, I can't get too terribly excited about the Beach Boys directly, much less indirectly, Merriweather Post Pavillion might be the fork you were looking for on their scrappy little trail. Animal Collective uses digital delay much in the way a newbie at the piano uses the sustain pedal, pressed down all the way so that each plod and throb echoes in a cavernous cathedral of its own crafting. In last year's Strawberry Jam, I often felt there was little else going on, but in the Pavilion we find the campfire mystics of 2004's breathtaking Sung Tongs have returned from the mountain thinner, with eyes that no longer see us before them but the wisdom of the horizon. What I'm saying: it's a really good record, pulsing away like the freest of Steve Reich idylls, spooky like the Residents' faux-anthropology masterpiece Eskimo, with just enough techno four-on-the-floor to keep you there. "My Girls" is the song, if there is to be only one extracted from this continuum, and even when you listen close, it loses something, repeating a precious chant of I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls a reasonable outlook but hardly an inspiring one. Unlike Hassell, where you are watching microscopic events unfold, Animal Collective on Merriwether is more like observing nebulas colliding in ultra slow motion through high power telescopes - all the grander for the distance between you and it.
Listen on lala
Beat Conducta Vols. 5-6
But there is only so much time I can spend with my head in the clouds, and thankfully the ever-interesting DJ Madlib is here to reassemble terrestrial reality into a similarly ethereal pulsing thing. Madlib caught my ear with Vols. 4- 5 where he forced the multi-culti chatter of India - both the reality and the Western concept of it, making an excellent compliment to reading Paul Theroux's scathing The Elephanta Suite. Here Madlib re-hashes the hash tables that dearly departed beat impresario J. Dilla formed in his all too short lifetime, and stream of short interlocking vignettes, forming a disjointed dream of hip-hop, and through it, the world. Unlike in most of hip-hop, there is a lot of sly humor in Madlib's psychedelic beat miasmas, casting him as a chuckling fat Buddha figure behind and bank of turntables, with the whole of experience sitting filed in his record crate.
listen on lala
Just as Jon Hassell is not really doing jazz and Animal Collective is not really doing pop music, Madlib is not really creating beats. Instead of building machines that operate on the grid, they are instead ll like the bright eyed-kid in Where the Sidewalk Ends who invented a lightbulb that plugs into the sun, each circling their respective lotus fields, tiptoed and sunblind, trying to reach the source. It's going to be an interesting year.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or