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.