Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Axis of awesomeness

Sam Gas Can - Life on Earth is Pure and Golden / Life on Earth is Hell on Earth
Lighten Up Sounds #44

Sam Gas Can's Life On Earth … (full title: Life on Earth is Pure and Golden / Life on Earth is Hell on Earth) has an abundance of alluring/alarming sounds, each one a mighty sonic axis on which the entire song—and then, when that particular sound gets stuck in your head, your whole day—turns slowly. I'm referring to: the garbled, manic vocals from "Intro – Beast" that may be lifted from a taped exorcism; the amateurish programmed beats in "Bachelor Sandwich"; and the tinkling keyboards in "Perennial Rebound," which call to mind a wind chime fashioned from the tiny wine bottles found in the gift baskets awarded at golf tournaments.

However, these sounds are playing catch-up to what's transpiring in "The World Has Turned Its Back on Me," a stripped-down and glummed-up number that leans heavily on the creaky, arcane elements of the country blues. Tick-tock percussion—possibly a foot stomping on the floor and a fist striking a wooden table—blends with vocals that sound like they were slowed down a tad. When you hear couplets such as, "They use my body and they take my soul / But everything else they just leave it alone," you want to send a greeting card to Sam Gas Can, and offer him hugs and candy.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


The Alters - Blue Hole
Lighten Up Sounds #28

This blog asks, "How the fuck do you write about ambient music without sounding like a big purple knob?" Fuck if I know. But it's a question I contemplated while listening to Blue Hole by Kansas City's the Alters. Because there were synthesizers and all sorts of electronic fanaticism that reminded me of the music associated with a high-level, video game boss. Not the actual affray with said boss, but the build-up—when you're one bad-guy-packed room away and the background sounds are extra shadowy and foreboding. At another point, the music became rabid and nearly overwhelming, like that accelerated video footage you see of ants scurrying across and picking apart an animal carcass.

Okay, that was all so biggish and purplish and knobbish.

Since I'm all about embracing activities that are self-serving, I choose to use ambient music as a tool for mining the depths of my memory. And on Blue Hole, there was an instance where the drip-drip-drip of the synths abruptly whisked me away to my old bedroom in Boston and those summer storms and how the rain would spill down the roof and dribble onto the skylight one floor below, and the insanity of how even when the rain ceased, the drip-drip-drip didn't and the INSANITY of how I allowed such disquiet to completely unbalance me.

Blue Hole's second side features ambient pieces constructed around what sounds like a pungi (Google "what snake charmers play”). I will refrain from telling you that the pungi often sounds out of focus and extraterrestrial, like it was recorded by a Voyager 2-type spacecraft and had emanated from a far-flung planet where the instrument is used by the upper crust of some advanced alien culture to weave flames into loops, which are then worn like jewelry.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Neon green boomerang shapes

Blanche Blanche Blanche - Songs Of
Night-People #133

It's hard to discuss Blanche Blanche Blanche without getting bogged down with finding all sorts of inventive ways to describe their sound. The male/female duo's music is constructed primarily from synthesizers. Speech-slurring, pupil-dilating, mind-fucking synthesizers. During opening track "Emily," the synths are so fucked and potent I began to imagine that, sorta like a synesthete, I could see the music and in this case, the sounds were neon green boomerang shapes inching across the room toward my face. Yes, synthesizers can be scary!

(And illegal. From Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again: "By the spring of 1982, electronic pop was so dominant that the Musicians Union made an attempt to limit the use of synthesizers. 'They seriously proposed the idea of rationing synthesizers, restricting them to certain recommended studios where they could be used to duplicate string parts,' says Ian Craig Marsh. 'Which sounds ludicrous, almost Stalin-like. But they wanted to protect the jobs of orchestras.'")

Here are other things I jotted down on a scratch pad when listening to Blanche Blanche Blanche:
• Synths call to mind dust motes dancing in beams of colored stage lights;
• Synths evoke the image of giant, silvery, fizzy scuba bubbles slowly rising to the surface of the ocean;
• Synths remind me of slow-motion footage of bullets impacting various surfaces.

On "Tragic Bios," it's like the Brattleboro, Vermont, duo just got their synths in the mail or at the flea market, and they're noodling around rather than constructing something with a definitive form and boundaries. On tracks like "Work Appears," the synthesizers aren't providing melody, but emphasizing space.

Sometimes the synths throb violently and bump the lyrics out of the way, or die off and provide breathing room for key phrases, or just tidal-wave over the vocals. What hardly changes is how the duo approaches singing: They sound largely detached and unsettling and monotone. (The synthesizers exhibit more emotion than the humans, like a machine-triumphs-over-man sort of thing. Except for on "White Tables," where they deliver this instantly-catchy chorus of "I could live in the dark / If I had my private light" and they draw out the word "private" in this playful, punchy manner.) The vocals sound like they're traveling through a long, long tube and the end has been placed near your ear. They're close, but faraway.

Mind-fucking, yes. Can't recommend this tape enough.

Monday, April 2, 2012

"You look at the floor and see the floor. I look at the floor and see molecules."

Various Artists - The Dan Aykroyd Compilation
Summersteps #26

The Spring Peepers were particularly riotous the other night. I could hear them with the windows rolled up and the radio going. You know who wouldn't appreciate these tiny, clammy creatures and their blessed ritual of singing to herald the arrival of spring? Roman God damn Craig, that's who.

Roman: "I tell you what I see when I look out there. I see the undeveloped resources of Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and Michigan. I see a syndicated development consortium exploiting over a billion and a half dollars in forest products. I see a paper mill and if the strategic metals are there, a mining operation. A greenbelt between the condos on the lake and a waste management facility focusing on the newest rage in toxic waste: medical refuse. Infected bandages, body parts, IV tubing, contaminated glassware, entrails, syringes, fluids, blood, low grade radioactive waste all safely contained sunken in the lake and sealed for centuries."

My only quibble with The Dan Aykroyd Compilation is that among its flurry of Akyroyd sound clips there isn't a single one from The Great Outdoors. We get Dan discussing his Crystal Head vodka venture, but no Roman. Maybe efforts to tape-record the film during a weekly cable airing were sabotaged by a house fire or worse, a cholera outbreak. Or maybe that widely popular Great Outdoors soundboard was shut down by the estate of John Hughes.

I'm just going to stop dwelling on it. You know what makes The Dan Aykroyd Compilation a real treat? Much of the lyrics can be interpreted in ways that wouldn't compel the listener to classify the songs as being rigidly Akyroyd-centric. Why sure, there are tracks like "The Unidentified Flying Ballad of Daniel," where over acoustic guitar and cello and what sounds like vibraphone, the dude from The Cult of James spells out "Daniel" frontwards and backwards in hushed, awed tones. Or others like Maryl-lyn Cooper's spoken-word showpiece "Ode to Mr Akyroyd." (Sample couplet: "I spent my days drooling over Ray Stantz / And my nights practicing my Elwood dance." You and countless others.)

But then there's "Neighbors" by Tigers Jaw, an unpolished and total-downer ballad that has an ending that reminds you of watching the last of your bathwater circle and go down the drain: "Letting myself go / Broken friendships / Away from home / And I'm fucking around / Burn myself to the ground." There's also My Dad is a Dinosaur's "Ghosts of Your Past" with it's bright and sunny repeated phrase of “You can be anyone you wanna be!"

Eric Schlittler, co-founder of Summersteps Records, on the compilation's genesis: "It was actually something this cat Bobby Keller (he used to be a local comedian of sorts) instigated. He had some songs collected for it and he sorta lost interest. Summersteps offered to get the rest of the songs from the bands and make it real. Maybe we'll do a sequel. People dig it."