Like Bells Re-Invent Slo-Core Incidentally

Over a decade ago I had the rare chance to see Stereolab play a church in Oberlin, Ohio once. It was one of those uplifting experiences you realized you’d never have the chance to ever replicate. I haven’t been back to Oberlin since then, but the residue of those memories still remains. I’m pretty fascinated with how a place like Oberlin (see somewhat middle of nowhere) still manages to sprout musical anomalies. And I’m sure the music conservatory has something to do with the fertile landscape – as the work that comes from there is either extremely reactionary to form (i.e. highly experimental) or virtuosic with hints of the future (i.e. highly experimental). Berkley it ain’t, more like the Dharma Initiative for trained musicians.

Let’s suppose that’s where Like Bells fits in – the latter half of my theory. Here we have a trio of accomplished students of the conservatory, bored with conventional instrumental music. Like local instru-heroes Brainbow, Like Bells are indebted to the quiet/loud dynamics of Mogwai as much as they are the cinematic lull of Explosions in the Sky, but manage to stave off comparisons to either by pushing forward. And if Brainbow sit heavy on the rockist end of that spectrum, Like Bells rarely sit still on their jazzbo--idm--slo-core side. Listening over their debut album you can hear the influence of fifteen years of geeking in Chicago from the Tortoise/Gastr del Sol/Sea and Cake sphere as well as the electronic tampering of micro-identities like Oval or Pole. Among these light and airy meditations on the old model – the tension/release, the underlying intricacies – songs such as “Yeti” and especially “The Streets Themselves” operate with a great deal of emotional heft. And that’s the mark of a stellar instrumental band, correct? The amount of voyage one can take with said music? With Like Bells, I can travel from the hum-drum, hear stories untold, and wallow or float depending on the mood. They don’t overuse their apparent chops, or underuse their gift of craft. The closest relative might just be the Dirty Three, with half the depression, but going beyond is obviously a goal for them. While I can’t exactly sign-on that this album will be in heavy rotation for months to come, there’s intrigue in these folds, there’s enough mystery and grave architecture to jump on for a ride to wherever they’re travelling.


Boombox Revolution Coming Soon

Since I'm significantly backlogged on topics/classic records to write about within the Bo Jackson realm, I need to take a breather. Some easy reading for the readers. Last week I heard this amazing little piece about the re-emergence of the boombox on NPR, loaded with plenty of resources to get your boombox fetish fullfilled. Considering the number of tapes I've purchased in the last twelve months, and my ongoing quest to find all of the old rap cassettes I eventually sold off, I'm getting the feeling this trend will take hold and I'll be scavengering for the ultimate Lasonic boombox Justin Smith carried with backhanded pride. Jesus was I jealous of that thing. I wholeheartedly welcome anything that brings us back to the analog world. Please, this is a must read and please, share your boombox stories below.


The Diggy Diggy D.O.C.

The shoebox has recently been dominated by West Coast classics, but none of those deserve as much retrospective accolades as No One Can Do it Better, the beginning of a very short career for the D.O.C. sure his ubiquitous first single, “It’s Funky Enough,” will be held in the same breath as the multitude of landmark cuts from 1989 – but if you were to play this for someone with only a surface knowledge of that time period, they’d likely be unable to name the artist. It’s sad that Dr. Dre’s production on the album overshadows, at least in anecdotal remembrance, the performance of the MC in question.

Go back and listen again. The D.O.C. was not a protégée of Dre, more a prospect/blue chip for Ruthless Records, removed from his Texas home base and brought to Compton to help write for N.W.A. and eventually record a breakout of his own design. A skilled lyricist and witty rhyme technician, the D.O.C. was chosen to match well with Dre’s increasingly laid-back progressions as a producer. No One Can Do it Better was still pre-Chronic mind you, and it’s still to early to tell with these songs that’s where he’d eventually end-up, instead it was the storyteller who ran this show, Dre was mere co-conspirator, second in command. There’s certainly no denying the initial two-toned blast and rattlesnake shake of the samples and beats on “Funky” – was this low-rider cantina hip-hop, gruff dancehall on the streets of L.A.? Regardless of the appearance of Ren, Eazy, Cube, and even Yella (he plays live drums on “The Grand Finale”) this was above all not an extension of N.W.A. The D.O.C. was poised to be a superhero of his own right, a secret weapon to rival the East Coast in technique and wordplay – something his new found posse admittedly lacked. His debut, in the parameters of consistency and innovation bests any of the records released between Straight Outta’ Compton and the Chronic. Just give it another listen.

Not to discredit Dre in any respect though, throughout No One Can Do it Better his seamless mix of varied funk and hard-wired beats keeps the momentum on tracks like the brilliant “Whirlwind Pyramid” and what is perhaps the first g-funk anthem, “The Formula,” (which concocts a late-night, starry-skied, gangster motif Dre would go on to replicate many times down the road). Still, Trey Curry takes center stage on each track. Even the final, aforementioned “The Grand Finale,” group cut is highlighted by the D.O.C.’s last verse. Of course, if you don’t know the whole story, even before the release of his follow-up single “Mind Blowin’” (equally potent), he was involved in an auto accident that seriously damaged his vocal chords, giving his already rough rhymes no life. He returned seven years later, but by then everyone had (unfortunately) forgotten him in the first place. Here’s to resurrection, at least for this album.


The Endless Joy of Dead Setz

Excuse me for getting all geek, but I’ve got one of those iGod’s now (code for iPhone) and it tends to take one to the dark side of geekdom. While I’m not to concerned with controlling my PC from my phone, or hacking into video game emulators, or anything too productive, I have become pretty obsessed with downloading applications for the little sucker (look at me personifying the thing). All I really want it for is tracking weather and Reds games, and Brian Eno’s patented music-making app is a be-all-end-all pattern for design on this interface --- but the most intriguing app I’ve downloaded so far is a complete archive of live Grateful Dead shows know as Dead Setz.

I’ll be the first to admit that I fall into the category of Dead fan late to the game – or Post-Jerry. I think it was my teenage closed-mindedness and my apathy for the entire culture associated with the band. But I couldn’t say I’d listened to song one of theirs other than “Touch of Grey,” before I was 21. Once I weened myself on Anthem of the Sun and eventually the rest of their studio albums, I became hooked. A self-professed adventure hippie. And then it all starts to snowball. You begin listening to the NPR produced Grateful Dead hour, bugging life-long Dead fans about primo shows, and ….no I’ll never buy a piece of merch with those fucking bears on it. Someone will eventually make me a boot shirt with the skull though.

Which brings me back to Dead Setz. Pick a year, a venue, an era, a song – you’ll find about a thousand renditions of “Sugar Magnolia” here. There was a very thorough NYT piece on the Dead and their fans a few weeks back that details the differing levels of Dead fans and how the “best” shows become considered for trading and worship. Right now I’m really digging on 12/31/69 – when they would go all out on the freak-out. Honestly, for $.99 --- endless joy.


Times New Viking Play Record Store Day

I'm beginning to think that Record Store Day is quickly becoming my favorite holiday. An excuse to dig through every pile of records they can fit into Used Kids and spend way too much money on those (sometimes) brilliant Record Store Day exclusives (which I see getting better and better in years to come). Vinyl's back, so they say. It never left, right? I'm also pretty psyched at how apeshit Matador gets about the event. That Pavement live record is amazing, thank you. Now I'm just waiting for the Bettie Seveert - Palomine re-ish. Columbus did not do me wrong in the slightest. It's good to live in a city that knows how to celebrate properly. My grabs from the dollar bin:

Out the year I was born. This may have been the first cassette I could say I owned. That cover always freaked me out.

Should've taken Mark Van Fleet's advice -- nothing stacks up to City to City.

For my Poolside pile. Self-explanatory.

Another brick in my obsession with owning all Jackson family vinyl from Off the Wall to Dangerous. Any Marlon owners out there?

Cause you can never have enough Prince on vinyl. His b-sides were as good as his a-sides, even up to this point and beyond. Here it's "Girls and Boys."

In memoriam to missing Fleetwood Mac at Nationwide Arena last night. Plus I don't own any Stevie, only Lindsey.

Not for "Lean on Me," but for the Luniz' sampled "Why You Wanna' Treat Me So Bad." Perfect proto-New Jack swing/Poolside addition. Wicked cover.

Then Times New Viking dazzled the crowd with a short set of almost all new songs. Squeezing in "Devo and Wine" and "(I Love My) Natural Resources" as a bonus. Enjoy. And apologies for the shady technology -- one day I'll get a proper workstation for this site.


Diplo Was a Madhouse

I know. Too Much Diplo in this last month. Still the Grammy Nominated "artist" made his way to Columbus for the first time since opening for RJD2 when he was hyping Florida (holds up years later). In that time he's risen to the mainstream while maintaining the original integrity he began with. His credits are numerous, but on this night he, like his stints in Austin as Major Lazer, continued to set the house on fire. There was certainly an altbro presence, as you will likely receive from now on in a post-Girl Talk, "i was there," hipster runoff, "party blog," universe (I'm somewhat guilty of getting in his face -- we go way back), but he seemed quite humbled by the response of the crowd. He mixed old with new, tried "baile funk" quick hits with Diplomats hometown shots, simply screwing with his equipment to numerous wave crests. This is modern ethno-musicology, the Harry Smith of his time (believe it or not). I'll argue till I'm purple in the face to my scum-rock loving peers how this simple DJ is an artist. Beware. With the recent merger of Fool's Gold/Downtown/Mad Decent this will be your children's future, like it or not.


RTFO Bandwagon - "Like a Dan Shearer..."

If you're still questioning whether RTFO Bandwagon have written one of the greatest songs in the Columbus pantheon with "Like a Dan Shearer Over Troubled Water," check out the impassioned version they performed in their "sort of" homecoming on Thursday. It was really nice to see this played out with the full band, featuring Dane Terry on piano (just like the record). A good way to close out a week where RTFO were the Agit-Feature. Golf claps in order.


Never Knew I Needed Onna

There’s really no point of reference from which to connect Onna, the 1983 Japanese duo of Keizou Miyanishi and Mafuyu Hiroki responsible for this mysterious/grotesque tease of Nippon-psych-groove-harsh-ambient-drone. It’s got it all in two short songs. Not an epic with multiple movements and instruments and voices – it’s much simpler than that. “It’s got it all” just means this could be all one needs for a night of freak-out, continually gnoming into the creepy/beautiful (check out the cover) layers here. It’s always been hard for me to really break into the bounty of late ‘70s – early ‘80s Japrock. I’ve got the book, but got stuck on Julian Cope’s superfluous introduction – and it’s also those hard to follow names, the numerous bootlegs are hard to track, and even in the advent of internet scavenger hunts, much of the music is hard to procure. Onna, in my mind, evolved past or out of the bedrock of bands like Les Rallizes Denudes and Flower Travellin’ (two that I am wholly familiar with) and simultaneously cooked in the urgent dissonance of no wave and post-punk, tripping beat-centric locked grooves like Kraftwerk and Suicide. But it’s more, using the basics, and by basics I mean the drum machine was stuck on one setting and set free, the duo had the freedom to explore just about anywhere the guitar wanted to go. For that the songs (from which I can’t translate any lyrics or for that matter titles) continuously shift throughout, though the beat keeps a line intact, everywhere else in the space it creates is being parsed by wild labyrinthine guitar lines. Freeform sub-downer warlock psych. Making sense? Well it really shouldn’t. There’s a aura to the Japanese culture that will always bewilder Westerners – be it sushi, Pokémon, or the Boredoms. You may not fully understand the inner workings or the ritual or exactly why one of their identifying icons exist (Pokari Sweat), but you smile and shake your head nonetheless. Usually the primo Japanese psych I’ve heard is perfect for smoke, but the best part is you’ll never need smoke to have an experience with these records. Especially this one. The guilty party, Holy Mountain, is said to be releasing more material from the group very soon.


Icarus Himself Has Found Him Voice

This is a plea to all of you in Madison, WI who keep flooding my mailbox with some wonderful music – keep it up. Cause now I’m going to start gushing about the latest arrival from Icarus Himself. Coffins, a fitting title by the way, comes quickly off the heels of Nick Whetro’s other project, National Beekeeper’s Society, and their scruffy basement blast, Pawn Shop Etiquette. Whetro is a much darker figure than his “band” would suggest, and it’s nice that he can manifest it within Coffins’ starched stark folds. On Coffins there’s a lot of talk about January, there’s a lot of pianos wallowing (I used this adjective last time) and weeping, there’s a lot of abuse, both physical and mental, that would suggest that Wisconsin is a tough place to live and an easy place to fall down some blackened, but baroque, staircases. This is especially true on the title track, where Whetro chronicles Midwestern spousal disputes from the perspective of the beaten. It’s rough stuff, but hopeful as it untangles into a lushly arranged end.

Listening to “Scars,” a beautifully re-worked version from his debut EP, I can hear the rustic surrealism of Twin Peaks (those bellowed Badalamenti tones) matched with a twinkling music box three doors down. The sandpaper n’ skin contrast shows Whetron finding his voice and his sound. Where many have compared the guy to Beirut and Neutral Milk Hotel (I’ll give you the lite-psych of “This Means Nothing”) but to these ears it’s more Spoon-noir shuffling. The methodical, eloquent cadence he’s found as a wordsmith, see “Flatwoods, WV,” is a perfect foil for the highly evolved musicianship most of these Madison folkies are spending their sunless days and bleak nights mining freely.

So I have to ask, what’s the main drag in Madison? This stuff needs its own column now.


Fungi Girls First Show

Following the feature interview I did with Cleburne, TX's Fungi Girls for the AGIT-READER, I was curious to know if these intitial recordings, recorded on a digitial camera, were available for view on the You Tubes. Yup. So above is their first ever show, and their demo, done in one stroke of mini-genius. SRSLY. If these guys tour the West Coast with Psychedelic Horseshit this summer, I'll employ someone to go and document it with videotape. That would be a film I'd like to see.


Hopeful Loss for Reds (With Darnell McDonald)

Yes. The Cincinnati Reds lost on Opening Day. I actually am somewhat thrilled it wasn't the bloodbath that could've taken place had Aaron Harang fallen to pieces. The offense was as expected against Johan Santana, but bullpen exceeded expectations. At a time when enthusiasm for your favorite team is at a fever pitch (pun) I'm surprising myself by not diving into an early funk with the 0-1 start. But there's 161 games left. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

I know. I know. But Darnell McDonald starting in centerfield (the guy's played 11 seasons and never been on an Opening Day roster until now) could be indicative of the many highs and low and constant mediocrity Reds fans have suffered through for a very long time. Here's hoping Volquez can shut them down tonight.


Poolside with Max Tundra (and Scritti Politti)

One of the surprises of SXSW that I failed to mention was my chance encounter with Max Tundra. It was Thursday night at the Music Gym, sandwitched between Columbus' Sandwitch and Columbus' Unholy Two, both crammed into the small 'club' area that resembled Popeye's apartment. Tundra was playing in the cut, out on the patio. Now I wasn't extremely psyched about seeing him, but by then I was a late-night weeble wobble and the crack-whores who were pouring drinks (they had to be crack-whores) would give you a plastic cup full of whisky for like five dollars. I guess crack-whores have good measurement when it comes to a hard-liqour "drink." Back to Tundra -- lots of people have sworn by him, even though he's made only one record in the last 5 years, but that one album has a gaggle of die-hard fans apparently.

His new album, Parralax Error Beheads You, brought him over the pond for some promotion. It must have been an easy trip, as a musician, for all he requires is his mini-korg synth-set and a handful of pedals and midi-switches. What he did in the course of 30 minutes was nothing less than a pop symphony. Akin to everything from Off the Wall disco-funk to the hyper-electronic hooked-on-classics vintage of Disney's Electric Light Parade (find it), but all very proper. His English accented anecdotes and banter could have been a diversion, but for some odd reason his cheeky demeanor was an adornment. The juxtapose between such slippery, hyperactive, beats and melodies and the somewhat fey professor vibe he was giving off worked a crowd that wasn't exactly sure if to dance or think. The guy's grown up in glitch and gabber, a British Kid 606 have you, but now I seem to think that what he does is closer to the new romantics and even closer to the shiny post-pop Trevor Horn would approve of.

Poolside? Because "Which Song" really reminds me of my all-time favorite Poolside -- Scritti Politti's "Perfect Way." Can't find a video for that one, so "Absolute" will have to do. It's a two for one today.


Too Soon for an MC Ren Comeback?

I suppose it all comes back to Tim Grunkeymeyer and the day he stole Straight Outta Compton from the Salem Mall Camelot. Maybe you’ve heard this story before, maybe you haven’t. Well once this tape was smuggled into GATE class at Concord Elementary, we’d play it on the communal six-headphone learning machine, along with my dubbed copy of As Nasty as They Wanna’ Be. Believe it or not, in sixth grade we’d play-act the parts of N.W.A. Since I was well versed in Eazy Duz It and most of E’s verses on the debut, I was that scandalous half-pint. Bert Hsung was DJ Yella, for obvious reasons (he couldn’t rap). Chris Woods was Ice Cube – as he was likely the wildest at the time – though he then had more affection for Ace Frehley. No one was Dre at the time. For some reason we didn’t realize his impact, his innovation -- for me it was not until the first time I smoked pot to The Chronic.

Tim? He was MC Ren. As a matter of fact, looking back on those times, Tim was obsessed with being Ren. There was something to his underdog status in the group that attracted Tim. The loner, the rebel, the logical thinker, not one to bust a cap unless there was reasonable cause. In retrospect it all fit. Tim was the first to try acid, was the first to hike into the woods for his spiritual well-being, the one that connected to the Indian vibrations of the Miami Valley, and the first to outcast himself from our gifted gang of wannabe misfits and the rest of the school environment. Tim was MC Ren, the guy that got no respect, but could care less about attention.

Kizz My Black Azz was the only piece of solo Ren (a six-song EP mind you) I’d ever listened to, and for good reason, as it’s the only piece of solo Ren worth having (did a recent survey and couldn’t find much). But that seems part of Ren’s mythology – to do one post-N.W.A. classic and be done with it. He did struggle through a lesser-than-his-equals solo career, on Priority no less, but his heart was never in it. Only here, in what is a forced exaggeration of his role in N.W.A. extended, does he have that originality in voice that expressed on those two influential gangster blueprints (never underestimate his role on Efil4zaggin). “Behind the Scenes” is almost too much to digest at first, as if he’s trying hard to outdo all the filth that came before. Incest? Gang Bang? Of course he joins in. Still his transition into solo artist seemed like a fruitful move on songs like “Final Frontier” (the best of the bunch) and “Right Up My Alley,” with his stern, calculated cadence and verbiage, he was built for late-night gangster tales, but tended to be more introspective, descriptive, and less hyperbolic like his counterparts. Matched with Bobby Ervin’s decidedly more live production, Ren was onto something, but perhaps it was tiring to write and perform an entire album of material without a gang to roll with and bounce off of? His subsequent releases, while maintaining a modicum of success for Ren, suffered because of this. All threatening monotone and no fireworks. Bound for a comeback? I at least wouldn’t balk at Dre giving him his own song on Detox. Tim would love it.