Saturday, December 21, 2019

Best Books Read 2019 - Recent Fiction and Vintage Horror

I read over thirty books this year, mostly fiction. Here are ten favorites.

Five Recently Written Books

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
A brilliant novel about a single/unmarried 36 year old woman, Keiko Furukura, who has spent the last 18 years of her life diligently working the same menial job in a Japanese convenience store. She is comfortable with her life, but feels out of place in a society that pressures her to conform to its expectations. One of the most remarkable characters I've ever encountered. Inspirational. Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Sealskin by Sue Bristow
Dabbling in magical realism, this novel is based on the Scottish legend of the selkie - seals who take human form after shedding their skin. After reading Michael Crummey's Galore and Eowyn Ivey's Snow Child in 2018 I was hungry for more of that ilk and Sealskin filled the void.

Aug 9 - Fog by Kathryn Scanlan
I'm so glad to have learned about this slim, spare book. It is the product of Kathryn Scanlan finding the dilapidated, waterstained diary of a random 86 year old mid-western woman at an estate sale. For 15 years Scanlan studied the diary - playing with sentences, cutting and pasting entries and rearranging it to flow as one narrative composition. The result is a beautiful form of homespun poetry. Very influential.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
Modern horror just doesn't seem to be as good as the vintage stuff from the 1970's and 80's. It's usually either too young adult, too "me too", too PC, or all of the above while being written in an annoying millennial voice. The Grip of It is the exception - a contemporary telling of the classic haunted house story. Done in a way that feels both in-line with tradition and non-derivative.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
I love fiction as told through journal entries. In this case the format delivers one of the most chilling books you'll ever read. In 1937, a down on his luck Englishman joins a year long scientific expedition to the Arctic. Over the next 200 pages things get increasingly eerie and unhinged.

Five Vintage Horror Novels (Valancourt Books)

I read several horror novels this year, vintage horror novels, but I'm going to limit my list of vintage horror to just ones published by Richmond, VA based Valancourt Books. Valancourt has a knack for rediscovering rare and overlooked out-of-print gems. I learned about them this year and they are the primary reason for rekindling my interest in horror fiction. Here are my five favorite Valancourt Books read this year. Some are from their Paperbacks from Hell series.

The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The haunted house genre goes for a Southern Gothic spin in this overlooked classic from 1981. On Alabama's Gulf Coast a well-to-do family encounters a terrifying presence in an uninhabited Victorian mansion.

The Spirit by Thomas Page
An over-the-top 1977 Bigfoot novel that is actually really good. I wasn't expecting this one to be much more than fun, but it was that and more.

Black Ambrosia by Elizabeth Engstrom
From almost the first page I had the feeling that I was reading a book that would be an all-time favorite. A slight lull about two-thirds of the way was the only thing that killed that buzz. I tend to like dark, horror books with teenage female protagonists and Black Ambrosia pretty much sets the standard. I'm looking forward to reading this one again to see if it's as good as I remember, or better.

The Bog by Michael Talbot
I actually found a used 1980's mass-market paperback copy of The Bog before I realized that it was one that Valancourt had reprinted. This horror novel seems pretty conventional at first and then starts taking some surprising turns. I wish they all could be this good.

Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale
This 1989 one-off men's action-adventure horror paperback is so meta that it feels like a 2019 book set in 1989 rather than a 1989 novel set in its present day. Imagine a Vietman-vet hero straight out of a Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone movie. Now imagine him as an uzi-toting vampire hunter. You nailed it. The first book in a series that never happened, the Nightblood story-line could easily be picked up by a writer like Grady Hendrix. The sequels would almost write themselves.


Thursday, December 19, 2019

Favorite Albums of 2019 (Best of the Year)

My Ten Favorite Albums of 2019

The Mauskovic Dance Band - The Mauskovic Dance Band
Space disco music by way of Amsterdam, Netherlands. Is this what an Afro-Caribbean influenced new wave jamband from Europe sounds like?

Carla Dal Forno - Look Up Sharp
Poppy, minimalist and deceptively hooky songs from a London-based Australian music creator.

Akron - The Akron Quartet Plays Ritual Sferei
Cool rhythms, killer bass-lines, and catchy melodies color this exotica from Barcelona, Spain. 

Dennis Young - Primitive Substance
The spirit of Liquid, Liquid lives on in this trippy, percussive, and dance-friendly collection of tracks.

Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller - Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller's Parlour Game
The most listenable and melodic jazz of the year came from this new collaboration between drummer Allison Miller and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Tony Scherr make it a quartet.

Jake Xerxes Fussell - Out of Sight
Another great set of songs from North Carolina guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell. The production is turned up a little bit this time, giving the music a modest sheen.

Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
The closest thing to indie-rock you'll find on this list. I listened to this over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again when it came out back in January.

The Natural Yogurt Band - Braille, Slate and Stylus
These funky, hazy, vintage grooves from England should appeal to acid-jazz and trip-hop fans, and those who pay attention to the background music in make-believe wildlife films.

C Joynes and The Furlong Bray - The Borametz Tree
A globe spanning array of quasi field recordings, inspired by Eritrean wedding music, the Gamelan of java, Indian ragas, old-weird Appalachia, Celtic traditions, Asian scales, Tuareg desert blues, and who knows what else. 

William Tyler - Goes West
Straight and to the point acoustic, Americana guitar instrumentals backed by a sympathetic ensemble consisting of guitarist Meg Duffy, bassist Brad Cook, keyboardist James Wallace and drummer Griffin Goldsmith.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Some 2018 Albums You Might Have Missed

Before my Best of 2019 comes out, here are some 2018 albums that, had I known about them at the time, could have possibly made it onto the previous year's best of list.

Alan Hawkshaw and Brian Bennett - Full Circle (2018)
Back in the 1970's, keyboardist Alan Hawkshaw and drummer Brian Bennett were part of a team of UK musicians working for the KPM label who created hours upon hours of what is called "library music". Essentially their 9 to 5 job was to compose and record a library of stock music that clients could use in commercials, TV shows, movie soundtracks, radio filler, theme music - you name it. Often the music was made prior to it being commissioned for a particular project. Someone who needed music for the intro of their tennis match or for a chase scene in a low budget action film would choose among the KPM music available. It didn't really matter if someone else had already used it elsewhere.

In particular, the music that Hawkshaw and Bennett came up with was so funky and chic that - although not intended to be consumed this way - gained its own following among hip-hop producers and rare music enthusiasts. Their "not for sale to the general public" LPs became collectors items. Long story short, Hawkshaw and Bennett - now senior citizens - got back together in 2018 to record a whole new album of music in their classic KPM style. Full Circle is definitely an homage to library music's heyday, but with twelve new original tracks it might be better than anything they ever did before. I love this record! Don't get fooled into thinking that it's just smooth jazz. It really grows on you.

IE - Pome (2018)
Pronounced "Eee", IE is a little known young band from Minneapolis. Of all the performers at the 2019 Big Ears festival, IE probably got the least promotion - as in zero - but I had a hunch they would be good so I made a point of catching their one set which took place late at night at the tiny bar/performance space called The Pilot Light. That ended up being a peak musical experience and a highlight of the festival. I bought the vinyl of Pome immediately after the gig and then played it again that night - now probably like one or two in the morning - at a pretty decent volume on the cheapo record player at the AirBnB, where it sounded p h e n o m e n a l.

I'm not sure what kind of music IE is. Maybe the music of ancient pagan rites from a futuristic dimension, as played by the ghosts and faeries in a Marosa di Giorgio poem? It's kind of like the long, patient, almost ambient jams that Phish would get into around 1999/2000 such as the the 6/14/00 Twist from Fukuoka, Japan. There's probably some Sun Ra, Wendy Carlos or Delia Derbyshire in there too. Who knows? The ritual drumming, the synths, the keyboards, the far out vocals - it all works.

79.5 - Predictions (2018)
I have to thank Spotify for this. It put a track from Predictions on my Discover Weekly playlist and instead of instantly fast forwarding to the next track like I often do when skimming through these types of Spotify curated playlists, I stuck with it. If Spotify could talk it would have been saying, "you seem to like ESG and BadBadNotGood so you'll probably also like 79.5".

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio - Close But No Cigar
This band tours constantly, playing blue breakbeat, organ-trio, funk-laden soul jazz. Delvon Lamarr's name might be titular, but his secret weapon and co-star is guitarist Jimmy James who is probably one of the most exciting performers you will ever see. The good vibes are contagious when this band takes the stage. Close But No Cigar does a good job of capturing a live sound in the studio. No trickery, no "production", no-frills. Just grooves. It could have been recorded yesterday or forty or fifty years ago.

Luke Bergman - Worx (2018)
This is the kind of music I love to happen upon. These ten tracks are an example of the kind of cool music that a talented multi-instrumentalist can put together with today's home recording capabilities. Bergman plays all the instruments heard on Worx. The first track Morning Person is almost an instrumental version of John Prine's Christmas in Prison, until you realize that Christmas in Prison's melody probably comes from some deeper collective subconscious. Track by track this music just kind of morph's into whatever Bergman felt like writing or recording that day.

Luke Bergman is not just some completely unknown DIY Bandcamp type person. He's actually a member of Bill Frisell's new HARMONY ensemble. So the guy has some cred. Bergman describes Worx as "Donkey Kong Country as a Hallmark movie."

Dungen and Woods - Myths 003 (2018)
I used to have Swedish band Dungen's 2004 album Ta Det Lugnt on CD. The Dungen on 2018's Myths 003 does not sound like that though. This Dungen is more mellowed out, pastoral, and hippie-ish than the harder rocking band of 15 years ago. Since this is a collaborative project it could be the influence of Woods. I don't really know anything about Woods but they are described as an American folk rock band from Brooklyn. Between Dungen, the movie Midsommar, and the northern-voodoo inspired band Goat, something trippy is going on in Sweden. The seven song, thirty minute Myths 003 is a pretty vibey and laid-back listen, flower children.


Sandcatchers - What We Found Along the Way (2017)
Oud and lap steel. Come on. That's all I had to know before wanting to listen. There's an ECM meets meets Windham Hill type of thing going on here. The African/Middle Eastern (almost banjo-like) flavor of Yoshie Fruchter's oud mashed up with the experimental Americana tones of Myk Freedman's (almost dobro-like) lap steel guitar. I want to see this band out live some day.


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Five Different Plucked Stringed Instruments

The Ruan (East Asia)

  • From China.
  • Also known as a moon guitar.
  • Has a round wood topped body with four strings and 24 frets.
  • Players use a plectrum.
  • Dates back to the Qin Dynasty (200 B.C.).
  • Used in modern Chines orchestra, tenor or bass.
  • Adapts well to Western folk music.
  • Tuned DADA / GDGD or GDAE / CGDA.

The Domra (Eastern Europe)

  • The three string domra originated in Russian in 1896 and is tuned EAD.
  • The Ukrainian version has four strings, dates to around 1920, and is tuned GDAE.
  • Played with a plectrum.
  • Fills a violin-like role in Russian folk ensembles where it is used to play lead melody lines.
  • The top is almost a circle and has a floating bridge.
  • It has a rounded, bowl-like back.

The Cümbüş (Middle East)

  • Pronounced "joom-bush".
  • Its name means "funny" or "revelry" because wherever it may appear it spreads fun.
  • Invented in 1930 by Zeynd Abidin in Istanbul, Turkey and would later spread to Greece and Macedonia.
  • Has six strings double-course strings, a round metallic top, and a skin or synthetic head.
  • The neck is usually fretless and attaches to the rim by a hinge and screw which allows the neck angle to be changed.
  • Is a cross between an Arabic oud and an American banjo, representing East and West.
  • Never took off in Turkish classical music, but was adapted by folk musicians where its sound cuts through when played alongside instruments like trumpet or clarinet.
  • Played with a type of plectrum called a "mizrap".
  • Usually played in first position; melodies only (no chords).

The Tiple Doliente (Latin America)

  • Tiple is pronounced "tee-play".
  • From Puerto Rico.
  • Its name means soprano.
  • The tiple doliente has 5 single course steel strings tuned in all 4ths, EADGC.
  • The scale is about 350 to 365mm.
  • Players use a pick to pluck single-note melodies.
  • The tiple is one of three Orquesta Jibara Antigua instruments, along with the cuatro and the bordonna.
  • It dates to late 1800's, early 1900's Puerto Rico when it was popular due to its small size and for being inexpensive and easy to build however someone wanted to do it.

The Languedoc Guitar (North America)

  • Electric guitar with a 25.5" scale like a Fender Stratocaster but with a hollow body and dual humbuckers like a Gibson Les Paul.
  • Invented by luthier and sound engineer Paul Languedoc in Burlington, VT, circa 1987.
  • The scale length gives the guitar a Fender-like bite while the hollow body lends it a woody, natural tone with lots of sustain.
  • The hand carved arched top body is completely hollow.
  • The types of tone woods used may include spruce, maple, koa, and padauk.
  • The 24-fret neck is made of laminated curly maple and are set and glued to the body with a carved heel-joint.
  • The headstock is designed to look like the shape of the state of Vermont.


Thursday, December 5, 2019

Phish As Music Curator

Season 1 Episode 8 of the podcast Long May They Run - a season dedicated to the band Phish - discusses how Phish served a music curator and influencer for its fans. It made me think of some ways that Phish directed or confirmed my musical interests.

Halloween Albums
The most obvious example for anyone would have to be the full albums they have covered on Halloween. I was ignorant and agnostic about Talking Heads during the mid-90's so when Phish covered Remain In Light in 1996 that really exposed me to that band and caused me to seek out Remain in Light and other Talking Heads albums on CD. In my case, learning about Talking Heads would quickly turn me toward David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album with Brian Eno.

Learning about Brian Eno leads directly to his Music for Airports album and ambient music in general, even before Phish started playing its own Siket Disc brand of ambient. Eno's Music for Airports was eventually covered in the studio by the new-music ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars and that version of Music For Airports quickly became an all-time favorite album of mine. Bang On A Can will be at the 2020 Big Ears Festival, my present day favorite festival. So there you go. Learning about Brian Eno leads to Cluster and other directions too. Maybe that's even how I got to Tortoise.

Circling back to Talking Heads, they were part of the New Wave or No Wave music scene of early 1980's New York. Learning about this scene brought me to Liquid, Liquid, a band I would never have known about otherwise!

None of the other Halloween albums really had the same impact on me as Remain In Light, although I remember really liking Loaded after they covered that Velvet Underground album in 1998. My local library at the time had Loaded on CD so I burned a copy. Unfortunately that's really the only Velvet Underground album I ever got to in that pre-streaming world. Worth exploring now?

I was fortunate to already really be into the flatpicker Norman Blake as early as 1991 or 1992, before I had ever even heard of Phish. So as I was learning about Phish I also learned that they did a cover of Ginseng Sullivan. This was so out of left field that it really increased my appreciation for this new awesome band I was getting to know. Same with the bluegrass band Hot Rize. I already loved the self-titled album with Nellie Kane on it before I knew that Phish played that song. And I'm pretty sure I already dug The Flatlanders (the legendary Lubbock, TX band with Jimmie Dale Gilmore in it) before I knew that My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own was a Jimmie Dale Gilmore cover.

I also think I had seen the Del McCoury Band open for the David Grisman Quintet before I made the connection that Beauty of My Dreams was a song that Phish got from Del McCoury. I guess I was pretty up to speed on bluegrass back in those days without any help from Phish. Or at least the same kind of bluegrass that Phish was choosing to cover.

Leo Kottke and Jamie Masefield
I couldn't have been the only Phish fan who became a fan of Leo Kottke after Mike Gordon collaborated with him on Clone and Sixty Six Steps. I wonder if it worked the other way; if Kottke fans became fans of Phish after hearing Mike play with their guy? Likewise it didn't hurt Jamie Masefield's Jazz Mandolin Project to have Trey and Fishman join him in 1994 for a handful of performances as Bad Hat, or to have Fishman join them for some tours and an album or two. Where is that Tour De Flux album? I remember it being awesome. Is it not online? Might have to remedy that if I can find my old CD copy.

Medeski, Martin and Wood
For Medeski Martin and Wood I'm pretty sure I first heard of them after reading a review of of It's A Jungle In Here or Friday Afternoon in the Universe in an issue of Relix magazine. The magazines Relix, Dirty Linen and No Depression were my primary sources for finding out about new music back then. That and the All Music Guide book (before it was a website). I got both of those MMW CDs and very soon after that heard Friday Afternoon in the Universe being played over the PA either pre-show or during the set break at some Phish show. Hey I said, I recognize that music said I. It's no stretch of the imagination to see how learning about MMW could lead to learning a teeny tiny bit about the whole New York "downtown" jazz scene that had happened just prior: Zorn, Frisell, Ribot, Lounge Lizards, and so on. And then staying tuned to what's happening there on through the 2010's meaning Mary Halvorson.

I think a lot of Phish fans were exposed to Ween when Phish started covering Roses Are Free in December 1997. I already knew about Ween by then and already loved the albums 12 Golden Country Greats, The Mollusk and Chocolate and Cheese. In fact I already had live Ween "bootleg" tapes as early as summer 1997 and remember playing one on a boombox in the parking lot of the VA Beach Phish show that summer. Since this was pre-Roses Are Free it only drew dirty looks and frowns from passersby. Whatever I was playing it was not cool...yet. Back then you only had like two or three acceptable choices for pre-show boomboxes: Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia Band, Grateful Dead or Phish. Maybe Zappa if you had the gumption for that. I liked to push the envelope and would jam stuff like Miles Davis Agharta or Tony Rize Manzanita in the lot. That seems pretty tame by today's standards but it sure felt like it was pushing it back then.

Sun Ra and King Sunny Ade
There was a time in the 90's when Trey seemed to mention Sun Ra or King Sunny Ade in every interview. I made note of those names and first chance I got I obtained copies of Sun Ra's LanquidityOn Jupiter and Sleeping Beauty albums. This is when a lot of Sun Ra stuff was still out of print so I had to use extreme means to obtain them. King Sunny Ade wouldn't sink in until later, but it was still a direct result of Trey planting that name in my memory ten, fifteen years prior. That may be why I'm so open to African music to this day, including Mulatu Astatke, Hailu Mergia, Manu Dibango, Kokono No. 1, Idris Ackamoor, and more.

Learning about Sun Ra also opens one up to accepting Trey's very experimental Surrender to the Air project, which featured Marshall Allen, Michael Ray, and Damon Choice of The Sun Ra Arkestra. Surrender to the Air also included John Medeski and Marc Ribot, making another connection back to that downtown New York jazz scene. If you can tolerate Surrender to the Air you're ready to be absolutely free. Years later I would get to see the Sun Ra Arkestra with Marshall Allen at the Richmond Folk Festival, my other favorite music festival. That was one of the best musical experiences of my life.

Obscure Cover Songs
I first learned about Phish in 1993 and didn't see them live until 1994. I would hear a song like Ya Mar, Timber, Avenu Malkenu or Back at the Chicken Shack and not know whether it was a cover or original. I guess Ginseng Sullivan was an unknown song to a lot of people. Perhaps this technique stemmed from the Grateful Dead who had several cover songs that they had made their own such as Jack-A-Roe, Peggy-O or Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. Eventually you learn that Ya Mar is not a Phish original but a cover of a song that Mike Gordon heard a calypso band called the Mustangs play while on vacation in the Caribbean as a young man. Or you learn that Avenu Malkenu is an arrangement of a Hebrew prayer, ahem, arranged by Phish in 5/4 time signature because why not? Could this early exposure have led me to my present day love of Caribbean and Klezmer music?

The Necks
Phish Festival Secret Sets
The last thing that comes to mind are the late night unannounced sets of all-improv instrumental music that Phish would play at its campout festivals. Talk about Type II. The infamous Tower Set from the 2003 It festival for example. I remember thinking that Phish should just do that type of music for a whole tour. But since that wasn't going to happen I wanted to know where else I could turn for that kind of music, if in fact that is a "type" of music? Well there's an Australian band called The Necks that to my knowledge pretty much does just that - every show is all improv music in a somewhat similar vein. The Necks will be at Big Ears 2020 as well.

I've mentioned Big Ears a couple times in this post. That high-brow culture of experimental art music might seem far removed from Phish's brand of crowd pleasing heady show-biz, but to give credit where credit's due plenty of that Phish jamming from 1994 through 2004, if viewed from an unbiased lens, could have more in common with Steve Reich or Ornette Coleman than it does many of the common jamband festival bands of today. Whether it's music for 18 musicians or music for four musicians, nobody else does that in-the-moment improvisation that's so good it sounds like it must be composed, but it's not it's improvised type music better. You can go looking for alternatives but you'll always return to the source that is Phish.

Coventry and its Aftermath
I did not have a positive experience at Coventry by any stretch of the imagination and so when Phish came to an end in 2004 I was simultaneously done with all-things Phish for a little while there. Good riddance in a way. Rather than a band dictating how I budgeted my life I was now free to explore other interests like travel simply for the sake of travel, beginning with a trip to Ireland in November 2004 that, not surprisingly, was my first exposure to actual Irish traditional music. Or greater than that, it was where the concept that music as something that amateur hobbyists can do for fun for their own enjoyment hit home. I realized that music was not just the sacred domain of these idolized figures that we have put on a special pedestal for our entertainment and hero worship.

So by 2006 I had started trying to play Irish tenor banjo, an instrument I had seen played in Ireland during my trips there. I quickly realized that the repertoire that works for Irish tenor banjo is not necessarily strummed versions of Neil Young or John Prine songs but plucked or flatpicked melodies to instrumental jigs, reels, hornpipes and other types of "fiddle tunes".  Further travels to Jamaica would generate an interest in Mento and other Caribbean music forms.

By the time Phish came back in 2009 I was more than ready to return to them with a clean slate, but I was also way down a path that had formed during the five year breakup. The primary thing driving my music taste now was the knowledge that I can play music for my own enjoyment. You can pluck a string and create sounds that way. In other words there are more options than just clicking play on a recording or waiting for a band to perform on stage in front of you at a preordained time. I may not have arrived at this epiphany had it not been for the post-Coventry five-year hiatus where we all had to reevaluate what to do with our lives. Could I perfectly cover all the parts of Guyute? Of course not. But could I learn the basic melody to common folk tunes like Kesh Jig or Arkansas Traveler and then learn how to sit in at open-minded Irish sessions or old-time jams anywhere in the world? You bet. That's a different type of music appreciation.

These days at age 45 it's all come back around and merged into one. When you start playing music for the first time at age 32 it doesn't matter how much music you have listened to up until then, playing it is still hard. Developing your ear is still hard. I'm only just now developing the ability to get out my instrument and figure out by ear the little melody that Trey happened upon briefly during the 11/29/19 version of Light for example. It's that potential that allows me to appreciate Phish even more and fit it into my current obsessions. I'm not working toward being able to play a note for note recreation of Horn on my tenor banjo. But an improvisation or melody-line hidden in a Light or Stash or Limb By Limb or Brother can certainly provide the fuel for me to then create my own melody inspired by it.

That's enough.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Five Musicians I've Learned About Recently

Here are five different musicians I've learned about over the past month.

Maso Rivera - Puerto Rican cuatro player
Maso Rivera was born November 13, 1927 in the Toa Alta municipality of Puerto Rico. He began playing the cuatro at the age of five. The cuatro is Puerto Rico's national instrument, kind of like a cross between a guitar and mandolin, and Rivera wrote over one-thousand compositions for it. In the early 1930's when Maso began playing as a child the cuatro was square shaped and had four strings, but the Puerto Rican cuatro evolved into a viola-like shape with five double course strings tuned in all 4ths BEADG from low to high. Its scale is about 20.5 inches.

I first learned about Maso Rivera two weeks ago when Dust to Digital posted about him on his birthday. I clicked play on the video they shared, liked what I heard, and looked Maso up on YouTube and Spotify. The album I immediately started listening to and loving is called Reyando Con Maso Y Su Cuatro. My first thought was that it reminded me of David Grisman's Dawganova CD from 1995, but then I started to notice the exceptional sound of the cuatro. I had no idea that Puerto Rico has such a rich and distinctive folk music tradition. And I was psyched to learn about the Puerto Rican cuatro and its cousin instrument the tiple doliente!

Omar Khorshid - Egyptian guitarist
I learned about Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid from a Dusted magazine feature written by English musician C Joynes that I read in late October. Khorshid was born in Cairo in 1945. He made several recordings in the 1970's and had a short, successful career before a 1981 car accident took his life. Omar Khorshid embraced the emerging sounds, styles and technologies of his day by adding surf-style electric guitar and synths to traditional Arabic melodies.

Spotify seems to spell his name two different ways, but under the Omar Khorshid spelling I've been enjoying the aptly titled Belly Dance, Vol. 1 and Belly Dance, Vol. 2. Sublime Frequencies, the experimental urban/rural field recording label, has also put out a couple Omar Khorshid records.

Azhar Hussain - Pakistani keyboardist
I don't know much about Azhar Hussain other than he is a Pakistani pianist and composer. Learning about Omar Khorshid had inspired me to seek out other middle eastern sounding music. A search for "folk music of Pakistan" led me to a surprisingly cool sounding album called Folk Music of Pakistan Vol 2. It does not sound like you think it would. No artist names are credited on the Spotify listing, so I did some more research and found out many of the best tracks were by a musician named Azhar Hussain.

That led to a 1970's Azhar Hussain album called Beautiful Land. The full title is Beautiful Land, Folk Tunes of Pakistan Played By Azhar Hussain (Instrumental). The record label EMI (Pakistan) Ltd. is probably worth researching in its own right because of its involvement in Pakistani Airlines PIA Inflight Music which from what I can tell was instrumental music recorded, curated, produced and distributed exclusively for the airline. This PIA music was often funky and exotic. A guy has a whole YouTube channel devoted to it:

Jorge Fontes - Portuguese Guitarist
I know nothing about Jorge Fontes, primarily because there appears to be absolutely nothing about him written in English online. He's only being mentioned because I found an old Jorge Fontes LP called The Best Portuguese Guitar in the two dollar international bin of a dusty used record store. The Portuguese guitar that Fontes plays has the teardrop shape of a large mandolin, kind of like a cittern. It is notable for its unusual Preston style tuning machines, which apparently involve turning the top screw so that a hook can tune the string.

The LP I found plays clean with no clicks or pops and is full of fantastic melodies in a style that sits in-between Spanish and Greek music. Spotify has a only a few albums by Jorge Fontes containing basically the same assortment of tunes as on the old LP I got. With help from Google Translate I've learned that Jorge Fontes was born in Vila dos Carvalhos, Pedroso parish, Vila Nova de Gaia in 1935, and died in 2010. The internet also says that Jorge Fontes performed for 29 years in the Arcadas do Faia and O Forcado Typical Restaurant in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.

Mikis Theodorakis - Greek composer
On the same day I found that Jorge Fontes record, I also found an album called Syrtaki Dance Greece I Love You instrumental bouzouki music by Mikis Theodorakis. A search for Mikis Theodorakis on Spotify reveals dozens of albums, none of them the same as the one I found. The most similar sounding one might be Roots of Greek Music Vol. 5.  

Mikis Theodorakis was born on the Greek island of Chios, in 1925. In addition to popular songs such as "Zorba the Greek,", he wrote symphonies, cantatas, ballets and operas. He also composed the soundtrack for the movie Serpico. I suppose the album I found in that shop contains instrumental versions of songs he had written that were hits in Greece. It contains some fantastic melodies, but I'm not sure if Theodorakis is the one playing bouzouki on it or not.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Favorite Albums of the Decade, 2010's: 2010 to 2019

This is not an attempt to name the biggest or most important albums of the last decade. I'm too old to care about that. These are just the ten albums that I rank the highest from the years 2010 to 2019.

Listening methods and habits changed pretty significantly during this decade. Spotify became the new norm - an endless supply of albums, artists and tracks to check out. At some point I learned how to let my ear take the lead.

Here are those ten favorites in chronological order.

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (2011)
Fans waited eight years for The Harrow & the Harvest, and were then delivered the best album of Gillian Welch's career. Refined yet boundless.

Tommy Guerrero - Lifeboats and Follies (2011)
Highly influential DIY instrumental grooves from a guy originally know more for his skateboarding than his music. Not overly complex, but extremely enjoyable. (This style of music was a big part of my listening the last decade. Khruangbin's The Universe Smiles Upon You could also have represented).

The Murphy Beds - The Murphy Beds (2012)
A duo: guitar, mandolin(s) and/or bouzouki; two voices in harmony. Simple, catchy, and beautifully played.

The Sadies - Internal Sounds (2013)
An artistic equal to the previous decade's Favourite Colours, The Sadies struck gold again with Internal Sounds. Punk campfire tribal rock.

Xylouris White - Goats (2014)
Debut album by this unusual collaboration between Cretan lute player Giorgis Xylouris and rock/jazz drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). An in-the-moment musical conversation as two masters listen and respond in real-time while the tape is rolling. Something entirely new.

Atlantis Jazz Ensemble - Oceanic Suite (2016)
Spiritual, modal, North American jazz with an ear toward Europe and Africa. Meditative and introspective music meant to elevate the soul. Yes there is a love supreme.

Jake Xerxes Fussell - What in the Natural World (2017)
There's beauty, strangeness and savagery in these songs, telling of devils, dangers, ghosts and mythical monsters. Fussell chooses to interpret his "old-timey" repertoire on electric guitar instead of acoustic, and it works.

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - An Angel Fell (2018)
This is my jam. The rhythms and melodies traversed over the course of this album's hour are patient, cosmic and spread far out. A further highlight are the tones band member Sandra Poindexter is able to summon from her violin.

Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell - The Maid with the Flaxen Hair (2018)
Two guitar legends, the sixtysomething Bill Frisell and the thirtysomething Mary Halvorson meet (for the first time on record) on the high, common ground that is Johnny Smith. What could have easily turned into a competitive battle of notes is actually the exact opposite. The two guitars blend in a delightfully cooperative way that is way more calming and far less noisey or flashy than one might have expected. The more closely you listen the more you are rewarded.

William Tyler - Goes West (2019)
If there's no tension, can there be release? William Tyler's beguiling instrumental melodies bask in the now while also peering ahead at something just out of reach, just off the screen, marching, but sometimes jigging, on the edge of Americana.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Weirdo Music and Horror Books

Wow. I haven't posted anything since July. Partly because I haven't felt like sharing anything. And also because it's been like seven years since blogging was relevant.  Hello 2012. And I know in advance that what I'm about to write about is going to be in the first person with most sentences beginning with the one-letter word of "I", like this one that you're reading. Only one person wants to read that. An audience of one. Me.

Well, we're well into Fall; the time of year where I traditionally ramp up my music listening and book reading so I can cram for the year end. I enjoy making lists and my lists of the year's best albums and best books read are my favorite types of lists to make. These will be put together by mid-December, so this is just an appetizer.

Spotify, Bandcamp and Youtube, as well as tastemakers like Forced Exposure and Mr. Bongo, continue to lead me into unexpected musical territory. One big shift from earlier versions of me is less of a reliance on a particular band/artist, "personality", brand or even genre, in favor of an overall aesthetic. Searching for a sound.... melody with drum machine or exotic "timpani" type percussion as one example, or original compositions based on faux ethnic themes or scales.

Very recently I've been surprisingly receptive to the fascinating world of dusty old field recordings where occasionally I can extract a melody, like from African kwela music. It's fun to take a chance on these types of albums when randomly found in a shop on vinyl. I've also been paying attention to movie/TV/documentary scores of all kinds, especially the diegetic music in the movie Midsommar and the exotic music arranged and composed by Yo-Yo Ma and The Silkroad Ensemble for Ken Burns' Vietnam film.

During the summer I took a detour into Library music and found some gems such as the album Full Circle by Alan Hawkshaw and Brian Bennett and music by I Marc 4. I've also uncovered some 1980's New Age type music that is pretty cool - stuff by Dennis Young, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Nakara Percussions, and a weird Dutch guy named Cybe.

Festival wise I feel pretty locked-in that Big Ears in March and the Richmond Folk Festival in October perfectly bookend two overlapping yet distinct aspects of my musical obsessions. Big Ears with its emphasis on the living legends of experimental music as well as its focus on forward-thinking composers and artists, and the Richmond Folk Festival which continually brings a well rounded and open minded inter-continental view of music as a whole.

A notable holdout from earlier versions of me is Phish. I'm warm on them when they are touring (I don't attend Phish shows that much anymore but I like to listen to the recordings the next day). One Phish jam I've returned to over and over again is the first set Tweezer from 6/21/19 Charlotte. I was actually in attendance for this one. There's a few fleeting minutes in that Tweezer - from about 05:30 to 09:30 if you're keeping score at home - that beautifully represent the peaks that music creation can achieve. I definitely stole a melody or two from in there.

The albums in contention for my best of year list are probably also good indicators of my current music appreciation. These include C Joynes and The Furlong Bray (The Borametz Tree), William Tyler (Goes West), Natural Yogurt Band (Braille, Slate and Stylus), Dire Wolves (Grow Toward the Light), and Jake Xerxes Fussell (Out of Sight). Within those five several bases are covered: a feral smorgasbord inspired by field recordings and genre-agnostic traditional folk (C Joynes and The Furlong Bray), new agey/new acoustic Americana (William Tyler), infectious melodies styled as fake Library music (Natural Yogurt Band), weirdo freakish out-there indie-jams (Dire Wolves), and visionary songcatching (Jake Xerxes Fussell).

I'll spend less text on books, ironically. I started the year motivated to read my usual quirky fiction books. Some worth noting include Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (excellent!), Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, Sealskin by Su Bristow, Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, and Aug 9 Fog by Kathryn Scanlan.

After a late spring/early summer lull I re-energized by getting back into horror fiction for the first time in - I dunno - 2+ decades! I've been on a tear ever since, reading one or two books a week which is a super fast pace for me. This renewed interest was sparked I think by learning of Valancourt Books, a Richmond, VA independent small press that specializes in publishing out-of-print horror novels from the 1970's and 1980's, among other things. I started reading their releases a few months back and haven't stopped since. Through Valancourt I've come to learn of the writers Michael McDowell, Ken Greenhall, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Michael Talbot. To name a few.

I'm not exclusive to Valancourt releases, although I have several more of these already in the queue. I hate the term genre fiction, but this focus on genre fiction has also led me to some contemporary books like The Grip of It by Jac Jemc and Foe by Iain Reid, as well as horror classics such as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's Hell House. I'm hoping to get several more books under my belt before the year end.

I'm still coming up with melodies either somewhat on my own or stolen directly from someone else (the latter is more likely). Fortunately due to my limitations as a musician I'm not really capable of copying or covering a song. It's kind of like a child scribbling while trying to make a duplicate of the Mona Lisa. So while I might know what the original source or inspiration was, the actual notes played might only match up a little bit or not at all. And oh yeah, I got a marimba! That can be heard in the first "video" below called Demonic Possession.

Here are some recent favorites:


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Two "Albums" Recorded and Posted to Bandcamp

Productivity and Leisure cover art.  Doesn't that shape look like Iceland?
Back in June 2017 I started a project that involved writing and coming up with my own exclusive repertoire of music to play for fun; tunes that I could claim as my own.  That one-year project turned into two years and by June of 2019 I had come up with over 100 melodies that I consider "mine".  Also during this time in addition to tenor banjo I started playing mallet percussion - first glockenspiel then xylophone.  (Marimba will be next!).

Last month I decided to take a little breather and look back at the music I had written over the last two years by selecting ten of the them for recording as an "album".  With apologies to actual bands and musicians who post their music to Bandcamp, I decided to do the same with my amateur recordings.  

First though I ordered a drum machine - a Cyclone Analogic Beat Bot TT-78.  The TT-78 has a retro sound meant to emulate the Roland CR-78.  I knew absolutely nothing about drum machines before getting one and I still know very little.  What I've gathered is that from today's perspective a drum machine is like a DJ's instrument used for electronic dance music and so on.  That's not what I was looking for at all.  All I wanted was a glorified metronome with some cool percussion sounds on it so that I could learn where the one beat was on some of my melodies.  The TT-78 fit that bill.

Onto the recordings.  I started recording immediately after getting the drum machine.  I've actually posted two albums so far:  Contemporary Impact, recorded over a week in June of last month, and Productivity and Leisure, recorded between 7/11/19 and 7/14/19 (just finished up this morning, July 14, 2019).  Each album features ten tracks - 5 on banjo and 5 on xylophone - played over a drum machine pattern that I quickly sequenced on the fly whether it worked or not.  I'm waiting to get a marimba but that is taking longer than expected, so rather than wait for the marimba to arrive I simply used my xylophone for the tracks assigned to mallet percussion.

The Contemporary Impact tracklist is:
Bye Bye Sol
Habi Gabi
New Burteeb
Sin Nombre
Sixth Noon of Midnight
Bird Dog's
Plenty Here for Everyone

The Productivity and Leisure tracklist is:
Toca Paseo
Armadillo Babirusa
High-Flite 90
La Luz
Last Chance to Row
The Fox
Liquid Yepocapa

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Remembering Jeff Austin

When Laura and I moved to Colorado in fall of 1999 one of the first things we did was go see Yonder Mountain String Band at Wolf Tongue Brewery in Nederland, CO on October 30.  That ended up being a crazy night and a grand introduction to the Colorado music scene of the time, of which Yonder would become the centerpiece.

I was already familiar with bluegrass by then, having been shown the way by Old and in the Way, which led to New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, Norman Blake, John Hartford, Tony Rice, Leftover Salmon and more.  But YMSB took bluegrass to places it had never gone before.  The songwriting, arrangements, dynamics, harmonies and rock n' roll energy jammed to the stratosphere were a mixture the world hadn't seen and didn't know was possible until their formation.

A big part of that chemistry was due to Yonder's mandolinist and defacto bandleader Jeff Austin.  Jeff was one of the best stage performers I have ever seen.  On his best nights - and there were many - Jeff seemed able to tap into and communicate with a muse or spirit that was equal parts guru and theater.

Jeff Austin performing w/ Larry Keel & others
at the 2001 High Sierra Music Festival.
Photo by Laura Fields.
In those formative days Jeff was often out and about in and/or around Nederland and Boulder so I actually got meet and chat with him more than once.  We were the same age/born in the same year.  The first time I ever saw him in person at that Wolf Tongue Brewery show I even noticed we were wearing the same shoes (Vasque hiking boots actually).  That was a good start. 

I would go on to see Yonder Mountain a couple dozen times (at least) between 1999 and 2006-ish.  In addition to that 10/30/99 Nederland show, some other favorites include 6/10/00 at the Gothic Theater in Denver, 12/30 and 12/31/00 at the Fox Theater, and both the 2001 and 2003 years at High Sierra.  Ah yes, High Sierra.  The fondest memories of them all.
Yonder Mountain String Band.  High Sierra Music Festival main stage.
I think this is 2001.  Photo by Laura Fields. Pardon the sun.

This week I've been listening back to some of these favorite Yonder shows.  I had either forgotten or didn't realize how much of a part of my life they were back then.  These are moments to cherish now and forever.
Adam Aijala, Jeff Austin and Ben Kaufman.
Brown's Island - Richmond, VA.  May 26, 2006. By Laura Fields.


Saturday, May 11, 2019

Tunes 106 through 113: We've Got Some Catching Up To Do

I went down a few dead ends - or caught and released some melodies - before ending up here.  Are you doing your best or just having fun?

Radishology (106)
I used the opening notes of Béla Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo as a jumping off point for this "composition". This whole thing doesn't sound that unique to me - maybe I'm copying some other song or maybe I wrote something similar earlier along the way - but this sequence of notes naturally came out and feels good to play. It's the act of creation that counts the most, not whether it's original or inspired or even good.

Last Chance to Row (107)
Recorded 4/20/19.  It was still coming together as I was recording it. The melody has similarities to the track Let Us Dance from Beverly Glenn-Copeland's Keyboard Fantasies album.

Head in the Clouds (108)
Recorded 4/20/19 with xylophone. Written late on the night before. This melody has similarities to the track Jag Ville Va Kvar from the Dungen / Woods album Myths 003.

Drying Rack (109)
This came to be after listening a little bit to The Young Marble Giants (the A-part) and then thinking up an Off to Sea Once More / Spancil Hill type melody (the B-part). Melody played on xylophone.

Dish Rag (110)
This tune arrived unexpectedly after a week of listening to Motown, Booker T., The Meters, et cetera. I heard this melody in my head earlier today and then quickly found the notes on the xylophone. I was able to play the sound in my head! After quickly composing I made note of the notes. Later in the day I finally had a chance to play it on banjo and that is what you hear here.

Scallions (111)
This tune has a melody similar to a well known Temptations song. I came up with it after listening to Booker T. and the M.G.'s. The recording was made on Saturday 5/11/2019. Played it on banjo first and then played along with that on xylophone. This would be tune 111 by my count.

Under Lock and Key (112)
This tune is kind of a combo of Lochs of Dread and Hang 'Em High. I've been playing around with it for a while and finally recorded a version on 5/10/19 with my Ome tenor banjo.

High-Flite 90 (113)
This melody almost wrote itself after I first listened to Jake Xerxes Fussell for the first time. I like the sound of it.


Saturday, April 6, 2019

Post One-Hundred: Tunes 101 Through 105

Tune 101 - I Don't Believe In Monsters
For this tune I was going for a springtime feel. Kind of a Brown Eyed Women / Eyes of the World hybrid for the first part, paired with a melody inspired by Gillian Welch's Winter's Come and Gone for the B-part. It's a pretty loose tune with room for improvisation. It didn't take long to write...just a few minutes on the evening of 3/9/19. Recorded on 3/12/19 playing xylophone over a C# Aeolian backing track.

Tune 102 - Pineapple Bang Bang
I wrote and recorded Pineapple Bang Bang on the morning of Saturday, March 16, 2019. It is the unique result of trying to be creative on that particularly day. The melody in the A-part was derived from the long forgotten but fondly remembered String Cheese Incident instrumental called Lester Had A Coconut which I just happened to hear that morning. The B-part sounds like it comes from the vocal melody line to the song Alright by the band Supergrass which I heard while watching Derry Girls earlier in the week and had to look up to find out what it was. For good measure I tacked on a bridge-like 3rd part reminiscent of the bridge to the song Sea of Heartbreak which I gained familiarity with because it is covered on the new Meat Puppets album Dusty Notes. That's me playing my Ome tenor banjo over a sped up Improvise For Real backing track.

Tune 103 - The Sixth Noon of Midnight
You could call this a tribute to the band IE (album Pome) from Minneapolis that I saw play in Knoxville on 3/22/19. This melody incorporates a motif from their song Moon Shot along with a B-part drawn somewhat from the vocal line of that song. Pieced together 3/26/19. Recorded 3/30/19.

Tune 104 - Rapture of the Deep
This melody came to be after seeing the Canadian band The Sadies live. It is borrowed from sounds they make. I messed around with it for a few days, then finished it up 4/4/19. Recorded last night 4/5/19 on the K-board. A one take and done kind of thing.

Tune 105 - Catch That Hare 'Fore It Jump O'er the Fence
A couple days ago I sung a melody similar to this into my phone. At the time I just called it "bluegrass song". Then later that day when I tried to play it on an instrument the notes seemed too simple or unoriginal. The next day I tried to add nuance to it but just made it more boring. So I went back to the original idea. Written 4/4/19. Recorded late in the evening 4/5/19 on K-Board because why not?


Monday, March 25, 2019

Big Ears 2019: Performances Seen over the Four Days

I finally made it to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN this year!  Here's a list of every musical performance I saw over the four days.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - The Standard

Kukangendai - The Mill and Mine

Very Very Hot Evil - The Pilot Light

Altered Statesman - The Pilot Light

Friday, March 22, 2019

Bela Fleck and Edmar Castaneda - St. John's Episcopal Cathedral

Joep Beving - Knoxville Museum of Art

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl - The Mill and Mine

***late afternoon dog-walk break***

Mary Halvorson, Tomeka Reid and Larry Grenadier - Knoxville Museum of Art (Nate Chinen: Playing Changes)

Spiritualized - The Mill and Mine

Uncle Earl and Friends - Boyd's Jig and Reel

IE - The Pilot Light

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Columbia Icefield - The Standard

Kristin Anna Valtysdottir - St. John's Episcopal Cathedral

Thumbscrew - The Standard

***late afternoon dog-walk break***

International Contemporary Ensemble and Carla Kihlstedt - Bijou Theatre

Makaya McCraven - The Mill and Mine

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn - Tennessee Theatre

Bluegrass Jam - Boyd's Jig and Reel

Hawktail - The Standard

Bill Frisell's Harmony - The Mill and Mine

Brooklyn Rider with Kayhan Kalhor - Bijou Theatre

Uncle Earl - The Mill and Mine

IE at The Pilot Light

Thumbscrew at The Standard

Hawktail at The Standard

Bill Frisell's Harmony at The Mill and Mine

Uncle Earl at The Mill and Mine

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Tunes 98, 99 and 100 - I made it to one-hundred.

This is a painting my mom did
In June of 2017 when I gave myself a goal to write 50 melodies in a year I didn't think I would actually write 100 melodies in less than two years.  But that's what happened.

 #98 - Swedish Walking Tunes
Here are a pair of what I hope are fairly original variations on what could pass for traditional Scandinavian melodies. I don't know what a Swedish walking tune is but I went for a walk immediately after composing these. The first tune is called Happily Äver Efter. The second tune is called Merrily Efter Äver. Each is played two times through. Written 3/2/19. Recorded 3/9/19 with Romero tenor banjo.

#99 - Strange Whip-poor-will
I believe it was Leonard Cohen who said that each day you get a gift. It might be something a waitress says or it might be a road sign. Two days ago my gift was learning about the theme song to the 1986 Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason movie Nothing In Common. The song is called Loving Strangers by Christopher Cross and the sound of its chorus was the inspiration I needed to help create tune number 99. To add more to this piece I included the musical notes of a whip-woor-will's call (F, C, higher C) as transcribed in the Field Guide of Wild Birds and Their Music. I made this recording as I was writing the melody. I'm playing it on a McMillen K-Board via the SampleTank app - a wind instrument sound - over a mixiolydian backing track.

#100 - Buffalo Bullfinch
Now that I have 100 tunes is that a complete body of work? I was hesitant to count this as number 100 but I kept playing it and liking its pensive nature. It's basically the head melody to the song Buffalo Bird Woman from a Scott Amendola CD. Hopefully it's different enough. If it's not then hey I successfully transcribed something by ear. But if I got it wrong then that's even better because in that case I have something even more original. Recorded 3/9/19 with Romero tenor banjo.