Monday, November 30, 2020


Jacken Elswyth/Ryan Eyers - Betwixt & Between 6 [Betwixt & Between]

This is the third entry in Jacken Elswyth’s Betwixt & Between split series that I've reviewed and, from what I've heard, this is Elswyth’s best work yet. The banjo is Elswyth's weapon of choice and he wastes no time digging into the the lengthy "Lone Prairie" with its quick hypnotic arpeggios and bowed drones. Captivating in all the right ways. Elswyth ups the ante with "The Caravan" a fantastic Welsh folk tune I'm completely unfamiliar with. It's the first time I recall Elswyth singing on one of these and I hope he does more. A calm and confident voice over minimalist drones, its nearly an a cappella tune and Elswyth handles it with aplomb. Elswyth wraps up his section with two banjo improvisations, the first of which is played through a dirty amp adding a pleasing grit to the sparkling twang of the strings. Spectacular work all around.

Ryan Eyers contributes five solo drum workouts evenly divided into three minute sections. Eyers's performances are completely accessible and not avant-garde in the least (unless you consider all solo drum performances to be avant-garde for some reason). Quite a change of pace for this blog when it comes to solo percussion. The pieces are extremely rhythmic and paced rather quickly making it easy to jump right in and tap the foot. The final track impressively delivers a melody via tuned toms as well! It's an energetic set while maintaining total focus. Dig it.

Hand of Food - Swimming Mindlessly [Ever/Never]

Ever/Never has done it again! Last month I flipped my wig over the Budakon Boys Ever/Never debut and this month they rolled out yet another left-field head spinner, Hand of Food’s 12” debut Swimming Mindlessly. Billed as New Age music for the new age, this isn’t a 90 minute cassette of flute samples and Jupiter patches [INSERT "ain't nobody got time for that" meme], this is a 20 minute dose of instant headclearing tailored to the post-millennium attention span. I mean, the only way this could get any better is if it was an app.

Harp strums, cymbal shimmer and flute flutter welcome you in but there's an occasional interruption in the signal, mildly inconveniencing your serenity. What could this mean? The fun really starts on "Absolutely Relaxing" with a movie trailer voice directing you to "take a trip back to carefree times" and commanding "you have to relax now" over a bed of foggy tones. The track ends with an "absolutely genius" final line which I will not ruin for you. "Your Inclination for Adventure" is more oblique, mixing in field recordings of talk of butlers and dinner reservations among blankets of synths and rainfall samples.

The record hits its strangest point on the title track which takes an utterly bizarre interview about an utterly bizarre real life encounter with a sea creature and then makes things even more utterly bizarre by doubling, slowing down and chopping up the spoken accounts. Thankfully a printed insert is included with the full text of the interview so you can get the full (utterly bizarre) picture. Oddly enough, "Swimming Mindlessly" happens to be the prettiest moment on the record with a lovely, lonesome melody drifting throughout. The record wraps with the most perfect guided meditation I’ve ever heard. I hesitate to mention anything more lest your experience be spoiled. Just trust me on this, it's epic.

This is a tough one to review because I want to give away all the punchlines, but no, no, I must be strong for you dear reader, for Swimming Mindlessly is yours to discover on your own. The way to spiritual oneness is not through me but through yourself. You will feel calm. You will feel invigorated. You will be your best self. Swimming Mindlessly might be an exceedingly clever joke but it's not just a joke because its music is actually effective and even affecting. What can I say? I’ve been touched by the Hand of Food.

Max Nordile - Building a Better Void [Gilgongo]

Max Nordile has played in about every other band that has come out of Oakland in the past decade+, having his hand in bangers from Preening, Violence Creeps and Uzi Rash Group (and I’m sure many more that haven’t found their way to my ears). Building a Better Void, Nordile’s solo vinyl debut via Phoenix’s Gilgongo sheds the punk trappings of many of his projects falling somewhere between his oddball projects, The Blues and Nothing Band. There’s a bit of the lighthearted avant-garde experimentation of The Blues (which I find to be charming and rather excellent) as well as some of the Beefheartian aggravation of Nothing Band which I haven’t quite gotten a handle on, making Building a Better Void a totally weird and inward record. 

Most of Void’s tracks could be categorized as songs, but just barely. “Deep Face”, “Site Traffic Prolonged” and “Wispy” remind me a bit of Maths Balance Volumes’s sloshed, obliterated take on “structured music”. "Site Traffic Prolonged" is my pick because it sounds like Nordile recorded his vocals inside a shed along with four people beating rugs. Somehow, Nordile finds a way to take those anti-rock vibes into far creepier territory than ever before. Speaking frankly, Nordile’s vocals give me the fuckin’ willies on most of these tracks; I can only assume they’re the cross-product of some unnatural processing and Max just being a naturally weird dude.

Forsaking any vestige of songcraft, “Dilligent Pores” charges forward into 100% pure musique concrète. The extended piece on the second side staggers forth pieced together via glue stick with a tick-tocking harmonic loop, murmuring field recordings, fumbling about with string instruments, fuzzy feedback, harmonica huff & puff and much, much more scrape and clang. The blemish on the record is “Milk Mtn”, a real low-grade no-fi art-rock patience tester that I’ve been annoyed by every time I’ve listened. But if you’re making records like these and you don’t alienate your listener at some point, you’re in the wrong business.

Fans of the fuzzy, warbling music-my-family-members-will-ask-me-to-turn-off genre ought to add this to their Xmas list pronto.

Patois Counselors - The Optimum Seat [Ever/Never]

North Carolina's Patois Counselors are a band that initially took some time for me to warm up to but I came to really dig their debut LP Proper Release. and even went back and tracked down their first EP on LA’s excellent Negative Jazz label. The EP showed a scuzzier production aesthetic which I quite liked but also illustrated that the Counselors had made an impressive leap in songwriting prowess between it and their first album. It would be unrealistic to expect such a sizable leap on their follow up album for Ever/Never, The Optimum Seat, but they certainly don’t lose any ground. Rather the group simply gives their sound a few tweaks here and there and delivers some of their best songs in the process.

The Optimum Seat plays with a more streamlined aesthetic than Proper Release. What you gain in cohesion you do lose in the lovable oddball moments (“Terrible Likeness”) but perhaps it's a stronger record for it. What makes Patois Counselors special is that they seem to have ingested all of rock music since 1980 and come up with their own perfectly engineered sound, not quite placeable at any point in history except right now. In The Optimum Seat I hear pop-sensible punks like pre-John Hughes Simple Minds or The Psychedelic Furs (also pre-John Hughes, naturally) yet it holds a completely different vibe from either of those outfits. I hear the early 00s when every smart band (and most dumb ones) were biting Gang of Four's rhythm section. I hear the time in the 90s when hip hop infiltrated high-brow rock a la Royal Trux’s Accelerator. (“There Goes Our Guru” is nearly the Counselors' first foray into recording a proper hip hop track.) I hear Au Pairs in the steely, momentous groove of “Big Pop Plays the Standards”. But none of this satisfies, Patois Counselors just sound like Patois Counselors and that's it.

It's hard to find fault anywhere on the album's first side. Impeccably sequenced, its most important decision was placing "Realities/A Series of Viceroys" first. It sets the tone of the record for Patois Counselors' continued scrutinizing of 21st century living and, most importantly, it's a totally exhilarating earworm. “The Galvanizer” arrives later and it is incredible. Challenging "Making Appointments" for the coveted title of Best Patois Counselors Song, it shows off the stronger strain of disco and funk influence running through this record without sanding down any edges or curtailing any wild compositional impulse. It sounds at once like the tightest groove you've ever heard and completely out of control. Through the transitive properties of Patois Counselors, you cut any movie scene to this track and it's instantly cool as fuck. It's just physics.

My only qualm with the record is there’s a minor lull at the beginning of the second side. The first two songs are solid but lack the same punch as the rest of the record, “Efficiency Now” jolts things back into place, however, quickly followed by “Give Me Voltage”. "Voltage" sounds like it could have been on the last record, and been one of the best songs at that. It's a gut-busting send up of the modern human condition where a dead battery = dead brain, but you may not even notice because the chorus is so damn catchy. This idea is spun into so many memorable phrases like “I lost my charge at the battle of tedium”, "Lift the curse of power shortage" and "Without a power source, how will I manage?" reminding you that Patois Counselors are the total bulletproof package: words, sounds and songs. The gentle instrumental coda "Southern Living" caps off the record giving you just enough of a breather before flipping the record to start again.

Great record. Great band. Not too many that can hold a candle to the Counselors right now.

Sewnshut - Sewnshut [Sluggish Tapes]

Way behind on writing about this tape which was birthed in my ancestral home of Norway. Always feel a bit out of my depth speaking about instrumental electronic music but I’ve never backed down from a challenge (or at least I pretend that’s true).

On this self-titled tape from Sewnshut, looping synths abound and simple drum patterns pitter patter in a pleasantly crunchy fidelity reminiscent of old video game soundtracks, but without any direct link to that style and its cheesy trappings. The tracks that hit the hardest are the ones possessing the strongest melodies with “Diminutive Mute” and “Temporary” forming a nice pairing of minimal and maximal. "Diminutive Mute" has a pair of intertwining plucked lines over minor-glitch drums while “Temporary” layers several echoing melodic riffs eliminating all negative space.

Drum programming is rarely thrilling to me so it’s no surprise that it’s my least favorite aspect here, I’d rather just be set adrift in cascading synth-swirl and go where the electric current takes me. However, the final and best track “Choke” eschews the conventional synthetic kick/snare/hi-hat for a thumping sub-oscillator stab, definitely the moodiest and most intriguing song here. It's simple, but there's something about a gently modulated sawtooth being repeatedly interrupted by an ugly, clunky sound that really works.

Sissy Spacek & Smegma - Ballast [Gilgongo]

Remember how Emily Dickinson had that poem about a poem being so good that it takes the top of your head clean off? That’s kind of the situation with Ballast, a collaborative effort between long running collage-core duo Sissy Spacek and even longer running “out there” outfit Smegma. It all started with six people (Smegma and Sissy Spacek members naturally) making rackets in Portland, LA and Cleveland, then John Wiese (who is a member of both groups) took charge of the recordings molding them into the maddening, impossibly precise slab of whizbang collage that it is today. In short, the LP issued by Phoenix’s Gilgongo (following last year’s CD release on Wiese’s Helicopter label) is a wild, heady ride like being on board a rollercoaster barreling through a modern art museum.

My favorite work from Wiese, at least up to this LP, is the record on PAN where he mangled Evan Parker’s saxophone. Much to my delight there’s some saxophone mangling on Ballast, but that’s not all. Far from it. Wiese is editing from a wide variety of source audio: percussion, horns, slack strings, synthetic sounds, processed audio, field recordings, vocal scree, sampled music, and so much more I’ve forgotten or haven’t picked out yet. In the span of a few seconds you’ll hear an avant-garde jazz excursion, a harsh noise tape, and a dub record crashing headlong into one another inside Wiese’s super collider. I’m definitely reminded of the junk-scrape collage works of personal hero Brian Ruryk, but the range of source audio is so much broader here. Furthermore, the play within the stereo field is fantastic, a joy in a good pair of headphones and certainly worth rejiggering your home stereo to have the speakers positioned as far away as possible on opposing ends of the room

There is so much fine detail, delivered at such a breakneck pace that it's truly mind boggling. An endless well of pleasures. This rules!

Max Zuckerman - The Corner Office [Galtta]

Taking its aesthetic cue right from the Heaven 17 playbook, Max Zuckerman’s The Corner Office goes straight for the pastel jugular with his satirical take on soft white yuppie-funk. Zuckerman pulls no punches, using plush production to belie dark and icky lyrics such as on "Gaijin" about fetishizing "Oriental" women, building to the final couplet "Now you're leaving me and darling please don't go/I don't understand your language, mostly when you say 'no'". Oof. It's got a killer chorus and a ripping guitar lead making it easy to return to. David Lackner's mournful sax line on "Busy Day" perfectly sets up the tale of excess, work-related stress and alcoholism (“He has two daughters and a wife he hasn’t spoken to in years” “Another drink will ease his mind”). Keep in mind this is played at a speedy, funky pace.

There are great little moments buried throughout that manage to be memorable despite being brief. The minor-key break on “Airplane Girl”, for instance, would have been sampled to death by enterprising hip hop producers had it been released in 1984. The Corner Office is unapologetically muzak-y with soft sax and flute drizzled all over the silky guitar tones and smooth synths. I'm not always in the mood for it but there's plenty of brains behind this operation and when the mood strikes The Corner Office works very well. The final verse on the tape sums things up nicely: "Right angle to the sky/There are those who'd have me crucified/Envious of my success/Abided by their righteousness/Because neither Jesus nor the Prophets/Got the corner office"

Recommended to those living the high life while unknowingly hurtling headfirst for financial ruin and a decent shot of prison time.