Broken Ear Record
An Electric Storm
Black Dice + Growing + The Fred Weaver Band
The Spanish Moon, Baton Rouge, LA 10/15/05
I have some theories about what folk music really means. It's not aping the amiable declarations of Pete Seeger or showing ones bluegrass chops and yet a penchant for syrupy over-production and a eagerness to be the piped in music at the coffee stand in Borders. That is Folk with a big F, a formalized and limited form. I'm not saying their is no new rows to hoe in this field, but its boutique music, not the folk music of which I speak. Folk with a small f is teenagers dicking around with their effects pedals, attempting to learn that opening riff from "Sweet Child O Mine" and finding just a touch of themselves bleeding through in the process. And the real torch bearers of folk music have always been the ones willing to fuck with things and produce new music that comes from within. Take the hallowed Harry Smith "Anthology of American Folk Music" box set of old race and hillbilly records that was a call to arms to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and etc etc. Its not because this was a document of a noble tradition that caught people's ears, it was because this music to this day just as then is so immediate and weird. These songs by field hands and jug bands were already 3 decades old when they got the 60's folk thing in action, and its the weird stuff that it generated that still inspires. Its the Incredible String band, its the Dylan albums where he was just getting weird on us, its the insular, introspective odd voices that speak to us looking for inspiration.
Through what has been weakly dubbed New American Weirdness, running the gambit from Jandek's atonal blues to Devendra Banhart's infectious preciousness to Animal Collective's wildfire pop explosions, the arm of weird music stretches out still. Weird music has legs. True weird stuff never goes out of style, since it can't ever be in style. Weird music is like those weeds that never go away. The ones that need their sonic lawn manicured struggle to keep weirdness at bay, but the second they let up, weirdness will choke out pedestrian music every time.
Living out here in the sticks like I do, the weird music is usually something I only get to experience on record and in the pages penned by hipper bloodsuckers like myself that have chosen to live closer to weirdness' natural urban habitats. So when it cam to my attention that Black Dice with support act Growing was to play but a mile from my house, my head blew open. I declared out loud to my trog co-workers that I couldn't believe Black Dice was playing, and they gave me the resolute quizzical look of the ardently mediocre, saying dumb things like "I never even heard of them." I gently reminded them that its OK, I am much cooler than they all are and that their fear of the unfamiliar was quaint. Evidently the sentiment was repeated by the populace at large, since I made up approximately 5-10% of the crowd throughout the evening. But it was OK. I wasn't looking for a night on the tiles here, I was looking for inspiration, and I got it.
If ever there was a band aptly named, it is Growing. Growing took the stage after a formidable but out of place rock set by local hero Fred Weaver and his band, just two men and with a pile of effects pedals on the floor and on chairs. Both the guitarist and bassist made judicious employ of loop pedals and e-bows to create a beautiful cosmic drift that filled the brick walls of this nether clap-trap bar to its overly high ceiling with it very heavy water. Early in the set, Denardo the guitarist made Fripp like droning soaring runs, run though enough filters and pedals and whatnot to form a weave, while the bass player would set some deep things in orbit via the loop, and then switch to guitar to add avalanches of distortion, then switching back to bass again. At that point (this is over the course of half an hour or so) the guitar player abandoned his guitar to just run the effects, letting the remnants of his playing form a listless twinkle, kinda like an ice cream truck dropped down a well, as eh bass player abruptly stopped and started the storm of fuzz, creating a physical sensation with each plunge of his volume pedal. So immersive was their sound that when the distortion swarm quickly abated, you were pushed to the side, rocking involuntarily as if someone just umped off your boat, only to careen back when it reappeared. It was a beautiful life-affirming stuff that dug its heels in ragas and drone rock and listening to impossible numbers of birds chirp in your hedges and then pushed you out into the stratosphere in a way that farty "space rock" never can.
In recorded form, at least in this latest EP His Return from them anyway, the wild seed that germinated into spontaneous cosmic fractal flora in the air takes on a more tended, hydroponic nature. The three extended tracks on the EP served as the perfect counterpoint for when, on the next day, my daughter and I were ironically stuck in gridlock traffic on the way to take a nature hike. "In the Shadow of the Mountain" took on the distinct air of bagpipes, or perhaps a large array of accordions that were attempting intelligent discourse with some cicadas task with percussion. It made for a pleasant ambient listen throughout its 9 minute run, but its the second track "Freedom Towards Death" the only track with obvious vocals that really grabbed me. While there are actual lyrics interlaced with their brand of guitar wizardry, the shadowy text served more as another textural instrument, pushing the band's conceptual side into a warmer, glowing place. Now, its difficult to not compare any droney ambient work to Brian Eno's renowned work, so I declare that the final 15 minute workout "Wide Open" could be subtitled "Music For Airports with Balls" since it walks some similar pulsating paths to the afore-referenced work, but adds a rock intensity to it, stirring this dust-storm into a cyclone by the end. Quite an interesting CD, and had I just not had my DNA irrevocably altered by their staggeringly powerful live presence, I'd probably be even more emphatic about it.
I got to speak with Bjorn Copeland, guitarist for Black Dice, at some length before the show, mostly because there were perhaps more amps on stage than there were people in the crowd. He recounted an anecdote of when they and Growing played in Australia, about him hearing Ravi Shankhar in Growing's sound, and how an old Aussie hippie scolded him for uttering such heresy, but honestly I hear it as well. Denardo, the guitar player for Growing, is not aping some Eastern scales or throwing in some sitar tone for flavor, but is juicing some mutant fruit from a tree with the same roots. The myth of formality is that once people become experts at something, they then struggle to uncarve their block to get at the energy that comes from freely playing. I couldn't tell from the show if Growing has John Fahey dexterity or Kevin Sheilds deep wisdom of the effects rack or if they are just open enough to let it flow through them like all that weak current that goes from a guitar to a pedal to an amp to any open ear ready to receive it. Doesn't actually matter, the shit was heavy, articulate and powerful.
A secondary star of the show was the bugged out hippie-tronics groove of White Noise and their 1969 album An Electric Storm that Black Dice was playing as they hooked up their gear for their set. Bjorn proved his supreme record nerd-hood by hollering at me from the stage to see if I recognized it, and sadly, I must defer to being outclassed as a sonic obscurist. Researching.it has been reissued, and there is some resurgent interest in the groop. Bjorn proclaimed it to be "one of the most expensive jams I ever paid for." But dude its a bugged out little record, sounding as if Bell labs sound engineers, Lee Scratch Perry and a heavy handed Hammond organist were tasked to produce a supergroup album by the Supremes, Sergio Mendes and Jefferson Airplane in an opium den attached to the Manhattan project labs. Seek it out and ye shall be greatly rewarded no matter the cost.
Anyway, Bjorn asked me if I was ready, since it appears only myself and another loner muso type were really there to experience the magic and not just looking to escape the intolerable campus madness of an LSU home game victory earlier that evening, and I was the gabbier of the two, and they kicked off their surprising set of old school Industrial electro-ass-kicking deconstructed to fuck. The three members on stage appeared like a scruffy urchin Kraftwerk, immersed in their varying arrays of gear set on keyboard stands across the front of the stage. The guy on the right had super cheesy electronic drum pads set up on his array, which he played to deliriously positive effect. The sound was straight outta 1986, martial handclaps and all run through echoes and whatnot. Bjorn was set up behind an attache case of thingies where only the neck of his guitar was to be seen, while i'm not sure what the guy on the left was playing. Both of the guys on the end took to the mic, either doing what appeared to be human beatbox and/or moaning and the whole thing morphed into one gigantic floating orgiastic groove, extending beyond its rhythms and gadgetry into something new and fresh. Black Dice has always surprised me with every record, be it the abrasive scatter-death-core of their early singles or the Martin Denny-esque tranquility of Beaches and Canyons or the alien drug pop of last year's Creature Comforts, but honestly, that last thing I would expect what I consider maybe the most out band in operation to be is funky. But they were. They were bouncing and swaying as if they were a rave act, channelling the synergy of the dancefloor crescendo into a much larger deadlier beast, something capable of levitation. Were there justice in this world, there would have been a floor full of sweaty bodies with hands in the air waving like they just don't care instead of a scattering of pudgy musos like myself nodding in syncopation from the sidelines.
But whatever. The inertia created by the sync amongst this band, including the A/V tech who projected a series of abstract computer animations onto the whole was larger than any crass dancefloor moment. It was a physical thing, with a heartbeat and a wandering eye and a hunger. I wasn't sure what I was expecting from a live show, since I had heard a range of "loudest band I ever heard" to "delicate and hermetic, like that amplified sound of butterflies" or other meaningless meaningfuls. But it seems tonight they were triumphant where dinosaur pioneers Psychic TV failed, in taking rave/techno/electro at its punk rock brutal face value and making something simultaneously subversive and sublime. It was one of the strangest and most eye opening gigs I've been to. I considered whether to start penning this review or hit the fourtrack immediately upon arriving home, but I took the path of not awaking my sleeping family with my rekindled lust for transcendent noise.
Listening to the album proper has made clearer the motives of this group. After two albums of the warmest weird music created in the last 10 years, the Dice has gone on to make a party record. Their mother label DFA is known for creating new infectious organic dance music like LCD Soundsystem and The Juan Maclean, stuff that bypasses the infinitely tedious taxonomies that exist in techno (one often gets the feeling that techno artists are more concerned with their placement in the card catalog than they are with the music they make) and gets to the business of creating a funky original beat. On Broken Ear Record, you still get the seagull echoes, electrostatic beer farts, grinding sub-feedback bursts that made Beaches and Canyons and Creature Comforts such compelling records, but instead of a third onanistic session of knob twiddling (and I'm not knocking masturbation mind you. Nothing in this life has a more consistently high hit to miss ratio than masturbation) they add their mangled boxcar to the Love Train.
The big single "Smiling Off" is a shining celebratory example, making me wish I'd picked up the remix single available at the show. Within 30 seconds its wandering staccato funk mixed with its undeniable thud beat will get the most jaded of noise listeners and disco-avoidees nodding their head. The scratches and dives and spelunking of the guitar and distorted but recognizable human voices blend perfectly with the cosmic heartbeat, getting at the fucked up trance inducing moments that made Can and Throbbing Gristle the beachheads they are. I was about to say this might not make it in the rotation at the next house party, but then I remember when a friend was Dj-ing a sweaty party in a friend's garage, and threw on Can's "Mushroom" off Tago Mago (best album ever), right between some extended Isaac Hayes hot buttered workout and a version of the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" and the Can track seemed to actually energize the kids, got the party started on a deeper level, reset our clocks to its gear manifold, and I predict that "Smiling Off" would do the same. I'm now on my fourth repeat, and am anticipating more as the day progresses.
"Snarly Yow" opens this up with muffled voices not unlike that of the adults talking in Charlie Brown holiday specials, which is befitting for this most insouciant of groups. It comes off like a sonic protest against clicking tongues on all sides, volleying back the endless yadda-yadda of critics and fans (myself included) back at them, as the boys tend to their pulsating meteorite task before them. I'm guessing "Heavy Manners" references the Lee Scratch Perry classic bearing the same name, since while not being strictly a dub track, has a distilled version of the dub vibe, with a sleepy chiming lilt and tidal breaks of bass and beats. Begging pardon for critical pretentiousness here, but it made me think of when Odysseus knocked out the cyclops that had him and his men trapped in an island cave, He told the cyclops his name was nothing, and that ontological paradox mixed with some drugged mead subdued the slobbering one-eye allowing his men to make a hasty retreat. Dub and post-dub (Is this post-dub/ Is there such a thing? May Zeus smite me if there isn't and I create it with this utterance.) is huge mythic music to me. Its the closest we get to music of the spheres (William Gibson would agree with me, the interstellar pilots in his cyberpunk novels are often Jamaicans who keep the dub pulse going at all time to help stave off the boredom and get into the groove of incomprehensible vastness) and chalk this up as another example.
I had hopes that "ABA" would be a reworking of the Throbbing Gristle non-ironic ABBA tribute track "AB/7A" off DOA: Third and Final Report, and while some of the echoed clicks recall TG's percussive strategies, this is more akin with Kratwerk's more base element synth workouts like off Radio Activity. It has a recurring glowing synthwave that subtly redoubles on itself, coming off like a lost radio signal from a pulsar. "Street Dude" operates as a jack into choppy spinal fluid of its namesake, a tangle of cycling room chatter laced in with a stuttering need to keep moving, twitching constantly to avoid both detection and disappearing into the landscape of detritus.
"Twins" turns out to be my favorite track on the record. an embodiment of some kind of junkyard blues-funk. I would have never expected a Black Dice track to ever include soul claps, but here it is. Its shadowy production almost gives its a feild recording quality, sounding like a boombox document of either an Afropop band on bathtub PCP or perhaps, what the Fat Albert junkyard band would have actually sounded like had not the weekly lesson been overdubbed to instruct us that lying is bad and doctors are our friend. Well, lying i a part of life, and doctors are one step away from applying leeches to you, and this is as immediate and elementally funky a thing as I've heard in ages. I'd love to hear this with a crazed rapid fire MC toasting over it. And goddamn if "Motorcycle" isn't one of the coolest caveman rock tunes in a while, its tangled lovely guitar line and beautifully simplistic beat and mumbletypeg grunts and hollers and flourishes winding itself up into a field work song for colonizing other planets.
Once again Black Dice has managed to sever all my expectations, blown apart what I think they are about and put it back together into fresh and brilliant music that revives my hope that people are still exploring, that they are feeling free to use all those influence floating in the air like viruses, but are not content to just ape them, instead using them just as another element for Creation. To those critics not giving this album its due, acknowledging its funkiness but getting worked up in failed expectations, boo-hooing the lack of solar flare experimentation of the last two albums, I would offer a hand pulling their heads out of their asses and this recursive version of the George Clinton chestnut "free your mind and your ass will follow." If you, in turn, free your tight ass from the expectations and plans you have for art and artists and then people and governments and societies and family and God and what-have-you, and from your own imposed limitation on what is to be from whom, and let it fly, your mind will be freed from the yoke of expectation and pigeonholed jail cells, and you will be truly free.
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