Saturday, May 26, 2012

Peter Stampfel @ Brooklyn Folk Festival

Peter Stampfel utterly lacks all the qualities that sometimes make folk music boring to me. Though his knowledge of American music matches that of the most scholarly revivalist, none of the following adjectives apply to him: tradition-bound, conservative, retrograde, humorless. While he plays multiple instruments, including a mean fiddle, Stampfel's art is one in which instrumental technique for its own sake is not a concern. His voice is, and has been for almost 40 years, one of the strangest in any genre of American music, though it wouldn't sound out of place on the Harry Smith Anthology - for which he contributed Grammy-winning liner notes - among the likes of Dock Boggs. This live uke rendition of one of Stampfel's signature covers, "Goldfinger", makes for a bracing immersion in the man's singular artistry. I'm glad whoever made this video got some audience reaction shots - lots of smiles ranging from politely baffled to genuinely amused, a few blank looks suggesting a state of shock, and one dude absolutely loving it.

My first exposure to Stampfel was via a live album he made in the mid-'90s with Chicago's Dysfunctionelles, a band of folk-rock weirdos every bit as great as their name. Though they played at least one show with fellow founding Rounder Steve Weber, the album, Not In Their Wildest Dreams, just features Stampfel and was compiled from shows in New York and Chicago. The album features Stampfel classics like "Griselda" and "Hoodoo Bash" and wacky covers of "Be True to Your School" and the Springsteen/Pointer Sisters "Fire", but it may have been Stampfel's solo banjo version of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", from a soundcheck, that made the biggest impression on me. Desert island material, for sure. Unhinged but capable of playing anything, the Dysfunctionelles seemed like the ideal band to stimulate and support Stampfel's peculiar genius, and it's a shame their collaboration produced just the one micro-label tape (which I desperately need to dig out of storage and transfer to digital - my comments above are strictly from memory). I did find an old article from the mid-'90s that referred to a planned follow-up session, but as far as I know nothing ever came of it. Note to the possessor of the master tapes: Not In Their Wildest Dreams deserves a reissue - a digital download, a CD, vinyl, whatever!

At the Folk Fest, Stampfel played one tune that I knew from Wildest Dreams, "Screaming Industrial Breakdown", which also appears on 1986's Peter Stampfel & The Bottle Caps. Robert Christgau has a typically perceptive appreciation of Stampfel in which he reviews the Bottle Caps album. Though not wholly uncritical, he goes so far in his enthusiasm as to declare it better than the contemporaneous Psychocandy(!). I found a vinyl copy a couple years ago, and it is, as Christgau says, "well-made", but despite having strong songs and imaginative arrangments, it suffers a bit from the unmistakable time-stamp of a well-made '80s record - yes, even folk-rock records on Rounder had that reverb-y drum sound. I'd like to hear some of the later Bottle Caps recordings, as these guys are clearly excellent musicians with a feel for Stampfel's music.

His current band, the Ether Frolic Mob (I hope they were named in honor of this Bugs Bunny cartoon), which in this incarnation included a variety of stringed acoustic instruments, an electric bass, Stampfel's daughter Zoe on percussion and vocals, and fellow '60s folk legend John Cohen on guitar, is agreeably loose and plenty capable of getting in the right spirit for this music. Their too-brief Folk Fest set started with "Shambalor", setting the bar high for weirdness (read more about this incredible '50s artifact here), and peaked for me with "Demon in the Ground", an answer song to/parody of "Spirit in the Sky", which Stampfel instructed the band to play with (if I heard correctly) a "boogie shuffle machine"(!) feel. My repeated exposure to the latter on classic rock radio as a teenager primed me to appreciate the Satanic glee (and who can do Satanic glee better than Peter Stampfel?) of the former, including the lyrics "I gotta friend in Sa-tan" and "when I die my soul will be cursed/I'm gonna go to the place that's the worst".

I also saw Dennis Lichtman's Western Swing outfit Brain Cloud at the Festival. They escape the trap of merely turning out museum-quality reproductions of period music (something they clearly have the chops for) with song choices both obscure and wide-ranging (true to the spirit of the original Western Swing bands, which drew from blues, Dixieland and Big Band jazz, country, and various strains of "old-timey" string band music to create one of America's most ear-catchingly potent though still somewhat underappreciated forms of music) and the presence of vocalist Tamar Korn. Korn's vocals, seemingly inspired by the great radio and Big Band singers from, I'd guess, Annette Hanshaw to Ella Fitzgerald, feature many of the vocal mannerisms common to that era, but eccentrically magnified to great effect. Lichtman and company succeed by doing justice to the inherently lively quality of a style that was essentially created as dance music, and at the Folk Fest they received the best possible endorsement by inspiring widespread dancing in the crowd.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Top Ten Things Currently on My iPod

In no particular order:

Sebadoh - Harmacy
I imagine this is an unusual entry point into the Sebadoh catalog (I almost entirely slept on them in the '90s), but I picked up this second last of their records after hearing "Ocean" on The Best Show on WFMU. Best Show boss Tom Scharpling's interview with Lou Barlow on the Low Times podcast also pushed me toward finally catching up on this band. With a mix of well-written, often moving jangly pop songs broken up by shorter, harder punkish outbursts, Harmacy is a mighty fine electric guitar record considering this was a band that made their name mostly with lo-fi acoustic recordings.

Miles Davis - Big Fun
A copious mixed bag spanning a few years worth of different sessions and employing an all-star army of musicians, this is a strong and semi-essential if not a cohesive electric Miles record. There's a particular pleasure, almost unique to '70s Miles, in hearing some of these long, sketchy pieces coalesce into the beautiful and/or wildly grooving passages that justify the whole enterprise. Miles did seem to be making truly "experimental" music in that there seems to be no way he could've fully anticipated the results of the musical situations he was setting up. Teo Macero's cutting, pasting, and sound manipulation, so important a component of Miles' studio work in this era, is very much in evidence here, nowhere more than on "Go Ahead John", with its wild noise gate effects, hard whip pans, and multi-Milesing overdubs.

Jack White - Blunderbuss 
This first White solo record has enough strong songs and stylistic diversity to make it highly re-listenable. Once it's done, I want to hear it again. Scattered notes: the title track reminds me of a Dylan song, though I'm not sure which one ("Isis"? "Time Passes Slowly"?); White makes good use of keys and acoustic instruments, expanding on a trend which started to appear on later White Stripes records, but there are still enough deliciously nasty guitar tones here to meet expectations. In fact, there's even a moment that reminds me of John McLaughlin's damaged, can-of-bees solo from the aforementioned "Go Ahead John".

Richard Strauss' Don Juan (NY Philharmonic 1998 live recording)
I still haven't quite connected with the rendition of Death and Transfiguration on his disc, but the Don Juan is exuberance itself and I can't get enough of it. Now I need to seek out more versions of both and go on a Strauss tone poem binge.

Nick Lowe - The Old Magic
In which Lowe continues to refine his already quite aesthetically refined, relaxed late-period style - retro in a non-period-specific way, with mellow sounds often serving as camouflage for the lyrical barbs that have never not been present in Lowe's music. His recent show at Town Hall presented this music in the best possible light, and it was a treat to finally see him with a full band (including frequent collaborator Geraint Watkins, quite an artist in his own right and sort of a Welsh Spooner Oldham), though he's just as effective as a solo performer, a fact that testifies to his personal charm onstage and the strength of his songs.

Ches Smith & These Arches - Finally Out of My Hands
Although these musicians, individually and collectively, have a penchant for (usually quite rewarding) trips to Weirdsville, this album is distinguished by some really strong, even hummable, tunes. Disc opener "Anxiety Disorder" is one of the strongest and features some especially fine drumming from Smith (love that fast cymbal pattern!).

BB&C (Tim Berne, Jim Black, Nels Cline) - The Veil
Though I missed the Stone show documented on this album, I did catch the trio (also known as the Sons of Champignon) at the promising new venue Shapeshifter Lab in the Gowanus. It's obvious that Tim Berne is not a musician to be easily intimidated, as evidenced by his willingness to step onstage with guitar demons the likes of David Torn or Nels Cline armed only with an alto saxophone, looking to the uninitiated like a man bringing a knife to a gunfight. Fortunately, this music is about collaboration, not competition - if the music sounded violent at times, it was a three-way, collaborative violence.

It's hard to describe the kinds of sounds Nels Cline is capable of producing, and at close range in a smallish venue, it can be an overwhelming, immersive experience. If a Wilco show doles out the high-proof Nels in sensible drams, contained-though-dramatic outbursts, this was like bathing in the stuff, football-coach-Gatorade-bath-style. At a few different points, Cline and Black locked into some ferocious grooves, driving the music along with an incredible intensity. At other times, when Black switched to laptop sound manipulation, it was possible to imagine Berne's saxophone as a lone human voice calling out amid the electronic thunderstorm. An argument could be made that this group is the legitimate successor to Motian-Lovano-Frisell, the drums-sax-electric guitar trio. Though their music may seem radically different on the surface, there is some overlap in the textures and moods the two groups explore as well as a history of collaboration and influence (Berne recorded with both Frisell and Motian, Cline and Frisell have collaborated live, and I once saw Black studying Motian at the Vanguard from the front row, directly in front of his kit).

Billy Hart - All Our Reasons
I've been listening to this for about a week now, and it keeps getting better. It's well-written, well-played, well-recorded, and most importantly, is animated by moments of spontaneous invention and surprise of the kind that aren't always captured on a studio record. Current favorites are Mark Turner's "Nigeria", which ends with the kind of interplay between Hart and Ethan Iverson that I enjoyed so much when I saw this group live, Iverson's "Ohnedaruth", with a piano intro (featuring a hard-to-describe but very distinctive touch and rubato-ish time feel - sort of swaying rather than swinging) which is one of the album's most ear-catching moments, and the memorable closer "Imke's March", composed by Hart and bookended by group whistling(!).

Marc Maron has done some excellent interviews on his long-running podcast in recent weeks, including a surprisingly personal look into David Cross' childhood and early career and a very easy, free-flowing conversation with a man whose outlook I always find inspiring, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne.

The Pod F. Tompkast
I haven't even scratched the surface of everything that's going on in comedy podcasting right now, but it's hard to imagine that anyone is doing more with the format than Paul F. Tompkins. I can't recommend starting with the latest episode (#17) if you're new - this is one of those things that's best experienced from the beginning - but it is one of the funniest I've heard. Tompkins is developing the stream-of-consciousness, improvised monologues (accompanied live-in-the-studio by Eban Schletter's piano) he does between recorded bits into a viable comedic form that he totally owns.