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In the mood for a little avant garde? Here’s a nice mix guaranteed to kill any party.

“From the Air,” Laurie Anderson, Big Science (1982)
Probably the most straight-forward song of the list, but I never tire of that riff. Seems ripe for sampling. Seems like the perfect way to kick things off.

“Come Here Woman,” Tim Buckley, Starsailor (1970)
Guitar fans take note: Lee Underwood may be the best kept secret out there. Check out his insane jazz licks on this song, the amazing opening track to Buckley’s best album.

“Dirty Blue Gene,” Captain Beefheart, Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
The beginning of this song is worth the price of admission alone. Frankly, the first minute or so sounds like the prelude to a song that seems to almost never arrive, thanks to the jump cutting from one musical fragment to the next. It would be chaos were it not for the repeating phrases. I can’t imagine what the practice sessions for this album were like. For my money, Radar Station is Beefheart’s best album.

“Blessing Force,” Akron/Family, Meek Warrior (2006)
This tune seems to cover almost the whole gamut of rock avant garde in one song.

“Amber,” The Residents, Commercial Album (1980)
You can’t have an avant garde mix w/o some Residents. This one isn’t all that strange, but it’s a nice (short) respite after “Blessing Force.” This album in general is great for shuffles.

“I Just Had to Die,” The Knife (2001)
Creepy bit of electronica. First time I heard it, I thought this band was from Japan. I guess I can be forgiven, judging by the artwork.

“Be Good to them Always,” The Books, Lost and Safe (2005)
“There it is! There it is! That’s the picture! You see it for yourself. It’s a man.” I don’t know what the eff he’s talking about but it’s freaking me out. The opening of this song reminds me of the video tapes from the future in Prince of Darkness.

“Koeeaddi There,” The Incredible String Band, The Beautiful Hangman’s Daughter (1968)
Man, this song threatens to fall apart from the moment it starts. And the less sense it makes the more sense it makes. Few songs are as daring and rewarding as this one (or “A Very Cellular Song” from the same record). I wish there were more avant garde folk tunes.

“I Hear a New World,” Joe Meek & the Blue Men, I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy (1960)
Not sure if this is “avant garde,” but it sure is strange and it sounds wonderful in this mix. Unfortunately the rest of the album doesn’t live up to this song.

“Finger Number Six,” Larsen, Rever (2002)
Frankly, any tune off this record would work, but I chose this one because the woman whispering in Italian sounds hot.

“Untitled” (9th track), Oval, Ovalprocess (2000)
This is another album where any track would work (or drive your roommate crazy) but I think this one is the most beautiful.

“The Fabulous Sequel,” Pere Ubu, New Picnic Time (1979)
The music on this track isn’t all that crazy but David Thomas’ voice sure is. This is one of Pere Ubu’s more playful tracks.

“All That is My Own,” Nico, Desertshore (1970)
The swooping viola will surely bring a smile of recognition to every Velvet Underground fan. While I’ve always loved the first Velvets album, I think this is Nico’s best work. This song, with Nico’s teutonic vocals, John Cale’s viola, and that incredible, swirling harpsichord, sounds like a romantic apocalypse.

“This Dust Makes That Mud,” Liars, They Threw Us In a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (2001)
Am I the only one who listens to all 30 minutes of this song every time? God I love it.

Well, we opened this set with a great riff and I love closing it with an endless one.


We don’t normally get to break new bands on Splat Macumba, but I see big things for Drink Up Buttercup. A friend of mine sent me to their My Space page, and I was immediately intrigued. Their influences are fairly standard for indie pop bands: Syd Barrett, Beach Boys, “Nuggets” bands, etc. What separates them from most is their gift for melody and odd arrangements. As Bruce Warren put it, they have “an ambitious musical vision,” which is more than you can say for most bands. Plus, as you can see on YouTube, they put on a good show. Their first album is coming out in January, so we’ll see if I’m right.

I recently took a train ride through a portion of Central Pennsylvania and took along the old iPod. Turns out, it made for a pretty cool shuffle album.

 

1. “#1 in G Minor, from Four Mazurkas, Op. 24” – Frederic Chopin (1835)

Absolutely perfect way to start. Two minutes of beautiful classical piano from one of the greats. It appears that he was only 25 when he composed this. Does that make him the Brian Wilson of the Romantics? From the great beyond, Mozart was probably thinking, “25? Whatevs. I was hitting the September of my years then.” But I digress. This music sounds great while looking out of a train window at the Pennsylvania countryside. Catchy title, too.

 

2. “Dead Queen” – Espers (2006)

This works remarkably well following Chopin. Pretty cool being that there’s a difference of 171 years between them. Scott turned me onto this cool Philly folkish band. At eight minutes, it’s very slow, circular, traditional folk with colors and textures coming and going, all to creepy effect. Heavily distorted guitar washes over folk instrumentation while ghostly female vocals tease you along. More great train music.

 

3. “Such a Twat” – The Streets (2004)

Kudos to Mike Skinner for getting that word into a song title. And you gotta love the juxtaposition from the first two songs of the shuffle. His songs work better in the context of his homemade, garage hip-hop recordings than in small doses. This one comes near the end of his great second LP, A Grand Don’t Come for Free where he tells the story of his relationship ending and beginning, fighting for cell phone reception and returning an overdue DVD. Believe me, it’s great.

 

4. “Have I the Right” – The Honeycombs (1964)

Another obscurity introduced by Scott. I still don’t know much about these guys other than this wiry one-hit wonder. In researching them for this, I read that their drummer was female and performed with a giant beehive hairdo and that they employed some unique recording techniques for the time, including the footstomps you hear on this track. Reminds me of the Nuggets stuff.

 

5. “Jackson” – Lucinda Williams (1998)

Another perfect train song. “Jackson” is a breakup travelogue where Lucinda crosses the South, city by city, trying to convince us that she’s not going to miss her ex-love. We know better, though. We can hear it in her voice. It’s simple and beautiful and one of my favorites of hers.

 

6. “Alms” – The Futureheads (2004)

These guys are crazy. Taken from their self-titled debut, this fits right in with their short, sharp songs layered with complex, trading vocals. Parts shift quickly. Choruses are shouted. English accents are relished. Fun is had. I highly recommend the entire album. It will wake up your coworkers, too.

 

7. “All Across the Sands” – The Stone Roses (1987)

B-side to their great “Sally Cinnamon” single. Some b-sides are hidden gems. Some aren’t. This falls under the latter category. Not bad, but I was ready for it to end. Still one of my favorite bands ever.

 

8. “Syeeda’s Song Flute” – John Coltrane (1959)

D’aaaah Coltrane. This is one of the poppier of Coltrane’s tunes. I think it was written for his daughter and has a cool playfulness to it. Still, his solo is pretty fiery and powerful. I also love being able to actually hear the piano and especially the bass solo through headphones. 

 

9. “My Sweet Lord” – George Harrison (1970)

Years ago, a friend of mine said that All Things Must Pass was produced better than any of the Beatles records. Needless to say, he’s no longer my friend but I can kind of see his point. There are some gorgeous parts in this song that benefit from Phil Spector’s huge production. The autoharp (is that what it is?) strums during the first couple of minutes, the fleet of tambourines, the gorgeous backup vocals. It’s all great but Harrison himself still seals it with his gritty vocal (listen to him stretch and sometimes crack for the higher notes) and typically pretty, slide leads. Hare Hare.

 

10. “Trouble” – Coldplay (2000)

I have to admit, Coldplay’s records sound great. Sure, Chris Martin never says much but from my gut, I always enjoy the feeling of their stuff. This is a nice one from their first record, Parachutes, from the time before every song had to be a FLAG WAVING STATEMENT OR GIANT BALLAD. I like the new section introduced late (would this be the “C”) with the “They spun a web fore me” thing.

 

11.) “Hypnotize” – The White Stripes (2003)

Filthy garage rock. This is what I want from the White Stripes. Not this. Listening to it in the car makes me want to punch people.

 

12.) “A Little Duet for Zoot and Chet” – Chet Baker & Zoot Sims (1953)

I love Chet Baker. There was a time when I was buying up everything I could of his but felt I struck a klunker with this album – Chet Baker & Strings. It took Chet’s fragile singing completely out of the picture and replaced it with schmaltzy, gooey strings. Some ok moments but not what I wanted from Chet. So I was surprised when I looked at my iPod and saw that this great little gem was from that record. These two epitomized late 50s California junkie jazz and Chet’s trumpet and Zoot’s tenor seem to walk and talk over each other, fighting for space. But in a fun way. My iPod knew it was my stop and wanted to send me off smiling.

 

Thanks, iPod.

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? cover

I love it when one of my favorite bands is at the top of their game. Of Montreal has been a fun band to be a fan of over the years. Their sound has changed continually and each period has produced its share of incredible songs and several masterful albums. But with this album, they’ve really outdone themselves. For my money, there are few albums are as thrilling and harrowing to listen to as this masterpiece. If anyone ever doubted it before, I think this album confirms that Kevin Barnes is a genius.

Of Montreal has always had catchy songs and wildly imaginative arrangements. And Barnes’ harmonic vocabulary is matched only by Brian Wilson’s. (If you don’t believe me, check out their chords here and see for yourself.) But with Hissing Fauna, Barnes has taken his skills to a new level. He now has complete mastery over melody, harmony, rhythm, and sound effects and is able to bend these core musical elements at will, changing the rules of music theory along the way. But more importantly, he’s using his powers to dramatize and emphasize the harrowing emotional tale that unfolds in this record. And that’s what sets this album apart from his previous efforts. As fun and insanely creative as The Gay Parade is, it lacks the emotional depth of Hissing Fauna.

I love the Kinks-like story telling of his earlier albums, but Hissing Fauna is so much more fascinating and daring because it’s about him. He’s baring his soul, both lyrically and musically. And that’s what makes this such a harrowing and thrilling listen. I don’t know the last time I heard an album that took so many risks. I’ve heard this album several dozens of times and there are moments on here that still make me almost gasp. I find myself actively worrying that he’s about to embark on something that’s not going to pay off.

Sometimes this is lyrically (and vocally), as with the album’s centerpiece, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” In many ways, this song sums up the whole album. The whole song is filled with seemingly clunky lines that shouldn’t scan well–some of which he repeats but sings in different ways–but somehow he makes them work, although as I said before, it’s not clear they’re going to work until he finishes singing them. Like this line, for instance:

but teach me something wonderful
crown my head crowd my head with your lilting effects
project your fears on to me I need to view them
see there’s nothing to them
I promise you there’s nothing to them

It’s hard to imagine being able to sing those lines in any kind of way that’s going to make sense, rhythmically or melodically. And he almost doesn’t pull it off. Until he does.

Even the song structure is daring. It’s just four chords that never change over the course of 12 minutes. And yet it never gets boring. On the contrary, it gets more intense and interesting as the song progresses.

Other times these risks are musical. The “ooohs” in the same song; when they first come in, they sound almost silly and yet they wind up adding to the song’s increasing paranoia. In the chorus of “Gronlandic Edit,” his melody twists and turns harmonically and rhythmically over the course of 46 seconds (that’s like twice as long as most “normal” choruses), punctuated by drawn out staccatoed words, and culminating in a high E that would certainly strain most people’s vocal chords. Or the chorus of “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse”: It’s hard to believe that the words “Come on chemicals!” could make for a great refrain.

Frankly there are dozens of moments that, on paper, sound like bad ideas–the “Are you deplaning?” section of “Faberge Falls for Shuggie,” or the “Is that too much to ask?” section of “Cato as a Pun”–but time and again he somehow manages to pull them off.

My only complaint is that after intense experience that is “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” you need a breather and yet you still have five songs to go. By the time you get to the last two songs on the album, it’s hard to stay focused and I’m not sure if they’re just weaker songs or if I’m just exhausted. But that’s a small complaint. After all, what other album is so intoxicating and startling, that it leaves you exhausted?

They’re about to release their 9th album, Skeletal Lamping, in a few weeks. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but it’s hard.

This is a cool acoustic version of  “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse.” What I find fascinating about this version is it sounds like a Bowie tune, but you’d never get that from the album version. (And I’m not saying that because they cover Bowie’s “Starman” in a similar video from the same gig.)

I think every city in this country has it’s own great power-pop band. You know that band. They’re in their late 20s-early 30s. Literate, catchy, and loud. Kind of quirky but with no visible delusions (i.e. onstage get-ups, ironic mustaches,). Not exactly full of ennui but too honest to give the crowd “an act.”

Just thoughtful dudes with huge record collections playing cool, crunchy pop songs.

The Bigger Lovers were Philly’s version of this band between 1998 and 2006. Oh how I love them.

They made 3 fantastic studio albums between 2001 and 2004 (How I Learned to Stop Worrying, Honey in the Hive, and This Affair Never Happened…And Here Are Eleven Songs About It) that at their best, boasted some of the smartest, hookiest and most well-produced power pop of the past decade. Philly studio ace Brian McTear was at the helm of the latter two.

It seems like every pop band like them gets tagged with the same critical stamp of the Byrds, Big Star, the Beatles, etc. And don’t get me wrong – they have their fair share of that. What I always loved about them however, was their snot. They were just as reflective of Wreckless Eric and The Only Ones as they were Alex Chilton and Emmitt Rhodes.

Vocalists and songwriters Bret Tobias and Scott Jefferson both share that great nasal quality that seems to contradict yet work so well alongside sweet melodies, chiming guitars and big ol’ drums (Patrick Berkery is fantastic). No matter how pretty the melody, they’d always be winking at you a little. A touch of wiseassitude to cut the sugar. Take this great bit from “Half Richard’s” about a friend’s new baby:

I’m so happy for you I can barely speak.

The smile so becoming and the chin so weak

He’s an angel in disguise, but I see Richard in his eyes.

I’m so happy for you I can barely speak.

His ooing and his cooing so unbearably sweet.

He’s as sweet as rhubarb pie, but I see Richard in his eyes.

It’s such a shame that he’s half Richard’s.

I could write for pages about these records. Instead, I’ll just tell you how great they are and you’ll believe me. I’ll miss them forever. Visit http://www.myspace.com/thebiggerlovers

Ambulance Ltd vs. The Grays

I read about Ambulance LTD back when their first EP came out in 2003. They are a band from Brooklyn who just had a little EP out at the time but I read a review that sounded interesting and took a chance. I thought they were great and picked up their full length CD titled “LP” in 2004. This is a great album. Their styles and production vary from song to song, making a really interesting listen. I’m sure that not having all the songs sound like they are from the same recording session is “against the rules” as far as the major label thing goes, but I think the differences make for a better album.

So why hasn’t anyone heard of this band? I’m not sure really.

I have had the same uphill battle with another band I consider “great”. They were called “The Grays” and they did one album in the early 90s. The band consisted of Jason Faulkner who was in Jellyfish and went on to release solo albums after this, and Jon Brion who released solo albums but became more well-known for producing Aimee Mann as well as Fiona Apple’s “weird” album that her record company refused to release. Every song is great on this Grays album – the different band members swapping instruments and vocal/songwriting duties on each song. The production is as impressive as the songwriting, with backwards guitar parts, layered vocals, and distorted vocals which (if the way they did it when I saw them live at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia is how it was recorded) was created by screaming into the pickup of a hollow-body guitar. I still call this album a masterpiece. And again, no one seems to have heard of it.

My point… well, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s one last attempt to bring people into the fold. Seek out these bands. You won’t be disappointed. Really.

All you John Vanderslice fans out there would do well to check out this gem from his original band. I first ran across these guys in ’97 when I was involved in a national band contest and this album stood out among the hundreds of entries I screened. The songwriting and production were so strong I couldn’t believe these guys weren’t already signed. A few months later they came to Philly and I dragged my friends to see them. I think we were the only ones there and I seemed to be the only one into them. I feared that these guys would disappear and never be heard from again, so, it warmed my heart years later to see that John Vanderslice went on to have a nice solo career (although frankly, his name still isn’t well-known enough for my likes).

Anyway, if you’re already a fan, this album fits in rather nicely with his oeuvre (that’s right, I said oeuvre). Even back in ‘96 he was already an amazing songwriter. Those of you who aren’t familiar with him, this album is classic 90s alternapop, featuring warm, overdriven guitars, catchy melodies that stick with you for days, gorgeous harmonies, and twisted, almost paranoid lyrics. What’s not to love, right? In keeping with the “soundtrack” concept–this is back when Pulp Fiction was all the rage–there are some rather amusing clips from what I believe is a fake movie.

As for actually getting this album, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you can hear the entire album for free right here. The bad news is that the album seems to be out of print and unavailable as a download. Maybe if enough of you email Barsuk records, they’ll make it available.

MK Ultra has two other albums, both worth checking out (both available for free on the same site) but for my money, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is where it’s at.