On March first of this year, not a note of this music existed. I had much of it in mind one way or another for some time but didn’t know where to start or how to capture it. It came to me, finally, that I could put together a modest but effective studio, sing the primary chords of each piece, record them over basic drum tracks, and send the results to cellist Gordon Withers. Gordon then sent me his cello ideas for each piece, frequently several at a time, which I edited and shaped into skeletal versions of enumerated compositions eventually called “Freedoms.” From there, the sketches were sent to J. Robbins and Mark Cisneros, and we all met at Magpie Cage in Baltimore to record their ideas and improvisations. I finished the pieces back at my studio, sent the files to J. for mixing and Dan Coutant for mastering and that is the story of these recordings.
“But why ‘Freedoms?’ Freedom from what?” one might ask. Freedom from oneself, perhaps, as one is freed when captivated by acts of creation; freedom from the limitations one has habitually and wrongly set for oneself; freedom from the despair and fear of the cascading and escalating crises of the last several years and especially the last couple of years. These freedoms are temporary, of course, and rarely concurrent. But they are at times all we have, and it seems suitable if humble tribute to capture and share some of their spirit in music.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoy it.
[You can hear some of J.’s music here, here, and here.]Sparks,A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip: Brothers Ron and Russell Mael formed Sparks in 1967, which means they have been a band as long as I’ve been alive. 2020 is the year I became a super-fan. This is their 24th studio album, released this May, and like every other Sparks record I’ve heard, it’s full of timeless, eccentric yet immediate pop music that crackles with an irrepressible creative joy. Sublimely ridiculous lyrics (“Stravinsky’s only hit / he toned it down a bit / He didn’t write the words, that was my job”) frame surreal and sometimes unexpectedly poignant stories, while the music runs an insanely wide gamut from almost symphonic harmonic complexity to new-wave ditty simplicity. Unlikely but incredibly catchy hooks abound. This record achieved the impossible: it made me smile while I was doing yard work.
The Drones, Feelin’ Kinda Free: The Drones were an Australian guitar band between 1997 – 2016. Members went on to form the delightfully-named Tropical Fuck Storm, who are also great, but the Drones are a special band for me and this record is a masterpiece. Singer/guitarist Garth Liddiard is a virtuoso of “wrong” notes and whammy bar mutations, whose playing has a scary emotional directness, seeming sometimes to grasp and stumble, but always with purpose and musicality. Their sound went through stages from garage-psych noise to melancholy Gothic Americana, to Neil Young-influenced walls of sound, and this record, their last, was a dive off the deep end incorporating loops, digital editing, and deep synth bass into an uncompromising wall of sound, with lyrics ranging from sharp-tongued political outrage (“Private Execution”) and conspiracy-theory-fueled satire (“Taman Shud”) to broken-hearted farewells (“To Think That I Once Loved You”). I often describe this record as “imagine if Beauty Pill were drug-addled reprobates,” and I say that with a heart full of love and awe.
Grace Jones, Hurricane: I got HOOKED on this record for maybe two weeks after watching the documentary “Bloodlight and Bami.” Deep grooves, inventive production, powerfully autobiographical lyrics, that unmistakeable voice so full of depth and challenge. A perfect beginning: “This is my voice, my weapon of choice.” The song “Williams Blood” is like a tone poem. Before I heard this record, I had always thought of Grace Jones mainly as an icon of surfaces and representation — her piercing gaze; her striking looks; her records, which, though brilliantly curated and highly enjoyable, were mainly cover tunes – but this (no less stylish) record is personal, powerful, and deep.
Einstürzende Neubauten, Perpetuum Mobile: Most people who know Einstürzende Neubauten only from a distance seem to think of them primarily as a noise band, more of an alienating art statement than music; the putative inventors of the elusive genre known as “industrial,” with lore such as their legendary destruction of the old 9:30 Club stage with jackhammers. But in the course of their 40-year history, they have absorbed and incorporated influences as disparate as Kurt Weil and Lee Hazelwood, and produced some sublimely beautiful music with unorthodox textures, hypnotic rhythms, and poetic lyrics. This record can bring tears to my eyes, especially “Youme and Meyou” and “Dead Friends Around the Corner.”
T-Bone Burnett, Tooth of Crime: T-Bone Burnett is mostly known as a record producer (his star-studded discography includes Sam Phillips, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand) and soundtrack composer (True Detective among many others). I went looking into his music after hearing an interview on the Broken Record podcast, and this album, along with its sister “The True False Identity,” stuck with me. The musical soundscape often resembles a slicker, more elegant version of Tom Waits’ recent records – noisy, often overdriven – yet somehow still understated. Lonely tremolo guitars hang in the charged air, distorted kick drums boom and ring, but the total effect is more seductive than Waits’ cranky challenge. Burnett’s deadpan delivery of darkly comic lyrics sometimes gives way to a more melancholy melodicism and an almost tin pan alley aesthetic, as in the ballad “Dope Island,” a duet with Sam Phillips which is a standout track for me.
Jerry Goldsmith, Logan’s Run Soundtrack: Jerry Goldsmith has been a huge musical influence on me since I was a kid. Like all the best movie composers, he was able to evoke the inner lives of a film’s characters, the soul within its action, and bring the audience into the story in a way only music could achieve. He was an effortless musical chameleon, while still maintaining his voice as a composer — endlessly inventive with melody, harmony, and rhythm, equally comfortable with pop hooks or 12-tone soundscapes. It became his curse that he had to supply depth for so many films that lacked it in and of themselves (to illustrate my point: try watching the supernatural scenes in the original “Poltergeist” with the sound down). Anyway, leaving the actual movie aside, this score is great! Goldsmith was a big fan of mixing what was then brand-new music tech like analog synthesizers and tape echo units with more conventional orchestral sounds, and in this score he really revels in avant-garde synth weirdness (to reflect the emotionless world of the dome dwellers) – but he also makes the most out of what sounds like a small-ish orchestra (with nods to Stravinsky and Copland) when it’s time to bring a sense of wonder or a deeper human feeling.
My band, BELLS≥, recorded the first of our North American Spirituals this past weekend at the Magpie Cage in Baltimore. The piece is called “The First Ray.” We debuted it last year on tour, and although we’ve kept the overall structure intact from that version, there have been some significant changes that we hope familiar listeners will enjoy.
Among these changes is J. Robbins joining us on bass. We were all quite pleased working together on Solutions, Silence, and Affirmations and it seemed a natural move for us to include him on this and future recordings. We look forward to his contributions to the remaining Spirituals as we move towards composing and recording the entire cycle.
The playlist below includes four examples of what BELLS≥ has been doing towards our next album, a collection of music called North American Spirituals. If you saw any of our performances on our tour last August, you heard quartet versions of another two of the pieces (“The First Ray” and “May You Bury Me”), both of which were written thus far with the group’s then-current line-up in mind.
That is, the pieces that will comprise “North American Spirituals” remain in variously-preliminary states, and while Chris Ernst has been working on them in Baltimore and Stephen Shodin and I have taken a swing at them here in New York, Gordon Withers recently performed some of his own ideas at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington, VA.
At the root of Gordon’s cello sketches are drum demos I recorded with J. Robbins at The Magpie Cage back in May. We set up a drum kit and some other drums and percussion and recorded for an hour or so. The next few hours were spent on edits, overdubs, and rough mixes. Chris Ernst was there, too, and by the time we left the studio that evening, we had drum tracks for a handful of pieces ready for distribution to each other and our collaborators. It’s not the way we’ve worked in the past, but we thought we should give it a shot, passing the tracks back and forth until Chris, Stephen, and I sense completion, and in the meantime, with hopes of such an outcome as Gordon has provided here. BELLS≥ has always been a collaborative group with its three core members at the compositional center, and since the beginning, Gordon, like J., has been a key contributor to BELLS≥. To have Gordon playing along with loops of my beats sounds, in the end, as natural as the two of us playing together.
Additionally, I’ve included in this post a Pete Duvall photo of Gordon and me from a few years ago in hopes of providing evidence of our performative unity in this somewhat unusual situation.
All of which is to say, here are four pieces from Gordon’s last show. One of the selections includes some organ from J. and orchestra bells from Chris, both recorded when I cut the drum tracks, and not live with Gordon. Be advised that these are only sketches, improvisations on some rhythmic ideas we have in mind. But we thought you’d enjoy them so here they are.
In my experience, most recording has been a matter of capturing a given group’s routine at its best, by which I mean the performances we’ve been after were essentially definitive versions of the songs we’d rehearsed or performed prior to the session. Some of this was no doubt financially-driven. Studio time is not cheap and except for the two LPs I recorded when I was in Jawbox, much of my recording has been fugitive, donated, committed on the fly or in off-hours, in friends’ home studios or with portable gear. This mode, given that I’ve almost never been in improvisational groups, generally requires readiness, organization, and rehearsal. 1 At the least, one doesn’t want to prevail over an engineer-friend’s generosity, and besides, the music one writes for such sessions is prepared to be recorded quickly. 2
In any case, two major changes in our band’s life determined the course of this session. First, we lost some of our equipment and our rehearsal space to hurricane flooding. Second, we underwent a lineup change. Each of these circumstances brought its own consequences to bear. In the case of the hurricane, we were shocked when we first saw our space, and later depressed when confronted with what was lost and the prospect of not rehearsing before our session. As for the lineup change, we weren’t shocked by it but we were saddened and at something of a loss as to how exactly we would move forward.
There was nothing to do but accept the storm’s toll, replace or repair what we could. The work and generosity of several friends, some of whom we had not seen or spoken to in several years, closed the gear gap with surprising ease. Similarly, we found that, for the purposes of the session, we were not lacking a bass player after all, and though the tunes would eventually undergo some radical changes in both tone and spirit, we were and are quite happy with the results.3 Each guest player/collaborator who joined us did so with everything he could muster, each of their presences was unique and varied, each profoundly personal, and each dedicated to helping us makes our music the best it could be. We finished 7 songs in all, perhaps fewer than we’d thought we’d have when we booked the studio time last summer but no doubt more than we thought we’d have in early November.
As for the album’s future, its release is still up in the air but we’ll get it out there one way or another. For the time being, it’s mixed and at the mastering studio.
There are three exceptions: The Night Is Now, with whom I played in Minneapolis and who made a single, improvised, as-yet-unfinished recording at a farmhouse in Hanska, MN; my bi- or triannual work with Kevin McKeendree and, sometimes, Steve Mackey (neither the guitar player/composer nor the member of Pulp) as the E Fowlkes Trio or Sextet; and Kill Dalton Ames, with whom I improvised the score to Christopher Ernst’s In Carcosa.↩
This concept, that music is *designed* with one sort of recording or another in mind is not new, though it usually associates with works created, frequently over weeks or months, in the studio. For most musicians or artists without free access to a studio or large sums of money, this method is prohibitively expensive.↩