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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2004/06/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Ill Albums, June 2004

Like a lot of people, many of my earliest musical experiences came through exploring my parents’ record collection. It didn’t take much guidance to figure out who they admired: The Beatles and Bob Dylan (and, to a lesser extent, The Rolling Stones), as well as folk revivalists, the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Archie Shepp, and a few other worthwhile tangents. Every now and then, I would ask if they ever owned a certain missing album, and would be told that it had been lost in a great radiator flood disaster when they lived in Brooklyn.
Even so, there was clearly a point where they simply stopped buying records nearly as frequently as they once did. How else, for example, would one account for the 10 years of Dylan records missing after Nashville Skyline (well, besides the fact that many were subpar)? It came at the end of the ’60s, for them, and I can’t quite figure out what made them stop buying albums. Was there less interesting music being issued? (I don’t think so.) Was it tied to the end of the ’60s-as-epoch and the meaningful/‘meaningful’ music that engendered? (Possibly, and that could easily tie to the first.) Was it simply because there exists a median age where people stop being interested in contemporary music? It’s this last notion that frightens me a little bit, probably because it rings with the ominous undertones of becoming an adult and, more, losing that particular relationship with the world.
Yesterday, I saw an old friend from college, a friend who turned me onto several of the more important records in my life. The conversation turned, as it usually does, to music. I asked what she’d been listening to lately, hoping that she’d turn me on to some great discovery. She paused for a long second. "Y’know," she said, "it’d been a really long time since I’ve bought anything. I didn’t even notice. It’s been a good six months, I think." That’s how it begins, I suspect.
So, yes, I’m scared about that, I guess — typical fears of adulthood, middle-age, death, etc., embodied in music. I’m reaching the age where my parents stopped listening to music. It feels good, then, to have found a couple of really special albums so far this year. There’s something quite satisfying about listening to really good contemporary music. Its work isn’t done yet. To use an obvious example: The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks… doesn’t exactly embody the same promise of anarchy it did upon its 1977 release. It is not news anymore.
The current news, then, is a sequence of really fantastic albums that defy genre and expectation to create entirely self-defined listening experiences. All are highly recommended.
self-titled – Icy Demons (Cloud Recordings)
Like Cloud’s last release, Jeremy Barnes’ A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Icy Demons displays a beautiful formlessness (and sheer fearlessness), lacing together small melodies, avant-garde soundscapes, off-kilter jazz rhythms, and an electronic undergridding into a completely modern-sounding psychedelic recording. Transcendent.
Variety Orchestra – Brian Woodbury (ReR)
A Day in the Life of a Micro-Organism (self-released) – The Prime-Time Sublime Community Orchestra
Both Brian Woodbury and Prime-Time Sublime head honcho Paul Minotto take the notion of the orchestra as their starting point and spin it madly on its head. Woodbury crosses genres like a post-modern madman – Italian accordion music, folk melodies, mariachi, ska, campy banjo, swing – with a deft sense of structure and composition and perfect accessibility. Except for fleeting moments, there is very little rock and roll in Woodbury’s palette, and that’s great. Variety Orchestra is cartoonish without being absurd, and all shining with the kind of California optimism that enlivened Van Dyke Parks’ best work. With his EPCOT World of Tomorrow parody title suite, Minotto picks up on the strains of sunny boosterism as well, albeit with far more cynicism than Woodbury. It’s better when Minotto shuts up and plays his string section (so to speak), but the total effect is still pretty bitchin’.
DUB from the Secret Vaults – Twilight Circus (ROIR)
Ryan Moore is an unlikely dub hero. Emerging from the damp winters of Vancouver instead of the dank streets of Kingston, Moore has kept his approach to the genre fresh, delving into deep spaces that employ the tell-tale reggae riddim only as a vague substructure. DUB from the Secret Vaults is deep and chill — a perfect album to thrill out to late in the evening.
Les Triplettes de Belleville – BenoCharest (Higher Octave)
I know very little about the history of French music, so it’s entirely possible that the soundtrack to the instantly classic animated film is well in line with a whole strain of genre (just as O Brother, Where Art Thou? capitalized on 100 years of American mountain music). Maybe it is. Either way, Triplets is entrancing, melding Django Reinhardt’s swinging acoustic rhythms with a beautifully mysterious Romanticism, broad pots-n-pans arrangements, and a soundtrack’s sense of cinematic development and ambience.
And also, y’know, Wilco’s A ghost is born, which has been endlessly hyped elsewhere. You should check that out, too. It’s every bit as incredible as 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A modern rock band operating at seemingly boundless creative capacity.
Check ‘em out.

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