October 2014: Bringing Home the Bass

Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass - I've been shopping for a new car this month, which is partly nerve-wracking, but mostly exciting, especially considering the sorry (and I do mean truly embarrassing) state of my current car. The central organizing principle of the search has been the need to fit my stand-up bass in the car without hanging the scroll out the back window, an arrangement that the coming winter will soon render untenable. "But, what's that got to do with this song, Josh?" Not much, I'll admit. I was hipped to this little sugary treat by Gabe, and I think there's a lot to like about it - not least that maybe "Baby Got Back" will no longer be the only pro-booty pop ditty in our public consciousness. I have a feeling that an incisive cultural critic would point out a handful gender- and racial-political problems with the video, but for the casual observer it's straight forward and fun. And, I gotta say, if this is the alternative to the Katy Perry/Niki Minaj/Etc. approach to talking about sex and body image stuff, I'm all for it. 

Ella Fitzgerald – Slap That Bass - Another treat from Gabe from a while back. Great on its own, and super fun in contrast to the previous track. It tickles me to transpose the euphemistic metaphor from Trainor's song to this one, giving some new meaning to the song, and a whole new take on Ella's persona. I love when the horns sneak in to double and beef-up the bass line. A trifle of a song transformed by a great arrangement and Ella Fitzgerald's incomparable delivery. 

Leo Kottke – A Low Thud - Perhaps biased by my dad's ongoing dislike of Kottke and (I think mainly) all of the imitators who junked up my dad's beloved folk scene, I've never given much time to Kottke. I picked up Burnt Lips (not available on Spotify, btw) a few weeks back at the CHIRP Record Crawl for a few bucks and have been leaning on it pretty heavy as worktime music. I read somewhere that Kottke hated his own singing voice, referring to it as "geese farts on a muggy day," and his singing is definitely the weak spot on the album. For those with a low tolerance for muggy goose farts there is fortunately plenty of instrumental action like this track. Listening to the album the first couple of times, I couldn't help but think, "Oh, he's like a not-as-good Ry Cooder." With more turns on the table, I can see that he's definitely going for something else, though - and it's definitely fun to listen to. Idiosyncratic and technically advanced without being "wanky". I'll definitely be checking out more. 

Sbtrkt – Higher - The new Sbtrkt album has just been rocking my world this month. Featuring a whole boatload of collaborating vocalists, the songs are joyously diverse and reveal Sbtrkt as a smart and subtle producer. What is consistent throughout the album is the incredible production. Everything literally sounds amazing. In a great song-by-song recollection of recording the album, Sbtrkt talks about being introduced to the teenage wunderkind Raury through his YouTube videos and inviting him to come collaborate on a song, thinking that Raury would stick to the singing that has been his calling card up to now. Nope. Apparently the dude is also a great rapper. I haven't gotten around to listening to his whole album yet (the download on his website was being wiggy), but considering the way Sbtrkt draws above-average performances from the other singers on Wonder Where We Land, I wouldn't be surprised if this is a stand-out for Raury as well. Remember, Raury is 17 here. 17.

Nickel Creek – Love of Mine - It's been a bit of a Chris Thile lovefest for me this month, especially because I got to see him work his magic live (more about that further down). To this point I've known him mostly as a hot-stuff instrumentalist, but clearly in Nickel Creek he gets to sing and write and all that more traditional bluegrass-y stuff. Speaking of bass, this song features (comfortably in the background) the incomparable Edgar Meyer (more also about that further down), quite possibly the best stand-up bassist in the world. It's kind of awesome to hear a group of such exquisitely capable musicians just hang back and "serve the song," as my dad would say. Great playing. Great harmonies.

Suicide – Ghost Rider - Suicide seems to be one of those bands you hear about on the fringes of music talk, especially nowadays when the sound they pioneered is sneaking into the hip corners of music all over. Minimal, raw, funky. They came up recently during the All Songs Considered podcast with guest DJ John Congleton, a prolific producer. During a conversation about the power of restraint and sonic commitment, he nails what is so special about their sound: "Technology has mutated to the point where you can lay down every idea that's in your head, which is a terrible idea. You just loot the idea. We were talking about 'Ghost Rider' by Suicide — I think that's a perfect example of, of 'Whoa, what a committed sound.' It's so uncompromising and there's nothing else happening and it leaves it all to your imagination. A lot of people will reference this band in the studio, and they're usually the bands that want to put 500 overdubs on their record. And I'm like, you know, 'Listen to Suicide. Listen to the band that you want to be like.'" (from the All Songs Considered website.)

DJ Spoko feat. Magaula & Puzuzu – Azange - Gotdam, this track always gets me from the very first sound. DJ Spoko is a DJ from South Africa who's been a shadow figure for a lot of SA enthusiasts - often talked about, apparently influential, and quite difficult to hear if you're not riding in a taxi around Pretoria. Until now, with the release or War God, which collects previously released music into a coherent whole. "Kwaito," the genre his music falls into, clearly has a lot in common with House and other electronic dance music, and reading about him inevitiably involves a lot of hair-splitting about how minor changes in the beat make it a whole new sub-genre. I'm not really interested in following that chatter, but there is definitely a spare, direct quality to the music that can't be unrelated to its cultural context. (You know, like, Africa and stuff.) In a fun interview for Afropop Worldwide (embedded here), he talks about discovering an early version of the beatmaking software Fruity Loops, and how the technical limitations of the program still inform his music today. In line with Congleton's insight about Suicide, I think whatever limitations he has internalized have helped surface a powerful booty-shaking clarity. 

Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer – Fence Post in the Front Yard - As a general rule, technical ability is not something that attracts me to music. I almost always fall down squarely on the "who cares" side of the "these guys are sick musicians" divide, especially when the technical fireworks squeeze out taste and musicianship. With these two, there's plenty of everything to go around. I strayed far from my usual aversion to paying more than $15-$20 for a show this month and coughed up a serious wad to see Thile and Meyer at Symphony Center, here in Chicago. What I've come to accept, particularly after seeing this magic robot act in action, is that these dudes are kind of out there. No bones about it, this is some mathy-ass shit. But there's a wit involved that promotes it way above your average noodler. The precision, depth, and speed with which Edgar Meyer plays the bass is honestly kind of incomprehensible to me. Quite simply, there are things he does that you shouldn't be able to do on bass. And he does them with an astounding amount of grace. My god. He manages at times to overshadow Thile, and that in itself is mind-blowing. I hate to compare music to sports (and don't frankly have enough sports knowledge to pull this metaphor off), but this is the aural equivalent of two legendary athletes pushing each other to the outermost limits of their abilities and laughing the entire time. 

Aphex Twin – minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix] - Again, we enter a whole world of electronic music that I'm embarassingly underqualified to comment on with any real insight. Aphex Twin is clearly a towering figure in it, though, and this is his first album proper since 2001. Carrying what wants to be dance music deep into a cerebral realm while keeping one foot on the floor. Great sounds and lots of ideas. "Aphex Twin is not afraid to freak you out," says Captain Understatement. Maybe now that Aphex Twin is back on the block, Radiohead will get back to being a rock band? Ahhh, a boy can dream, can't he?

Jeff Nhore – Afara Koa Tsy Atao - Afropop Worldwide has been doing a really insightful series of "Hip Deep" podcasts and articles about contemporary music in Madagascar. A recent podcast explored the musical genre called "tsapiky" (pronounced tsa-PEEK), from the southwest part of the island, particularly that area's main city Tulear. I tracked down this compilation of tsapiky music, which has tons of great stuff on it. Generally, the genre is exemplified by a driving beat, spirited singing, and wildly inventive electric guitar playing. Being acoustic and pared down, this track is pretty significantly different from everything else on the album, but it really lets the particular tsapiky beat shine, and (probably, but I'm guessing) represents an older, rootsier version of the music, stripped of Western "rock" dressing. Check it out. Everything the series has explored so far makes a strong case for Madagascar as a musical engine on par with England or Iceland, other islands with major musical horsepower. 

Ex Hex – Waste Your Time - A couple of summers ago I went to see WILD FLAG (Mary Timony's previous band) play at a street festival. As the all-female band took the stage, an older, kind of drunk gentleman turned to me and said something along the lines of "Do these chicks actually know how to rock?" As they started to play, I thought the answer to that was a pretty clear "Hell yeah!," but he left after a few songs, so maybe he didn't agree. My point is, that guy was dumb and probably a misogynist. Also, Mary Timony definitely knows how to rock, as proven tunefully over and over on this new record from her new band Ex Hex.

Baron Vaughn – Vegas and Tommy Johnagin – Alpha Male - I wish I could say that music is the dominant tenant in my headphones, which are on my head for multiple dog walks a day, most car driving (I know it's illegal, but my stereo, it does not make the sounds), and any other peripatetic activities. But, for some reason I'm not clear on, talking seems to suit the feet-moving better than music, and this month I've been indulging in a lot of comedy. I can report that a lot of stand-up comedy is pretty unimaginative and hackneyed. Baron Vaughn and Tommy Johnagin are two of my favorites right now. Vaughn has a unique point of view, a nimble mind, and a crazy amount of vocal talent, as evidenced in this track. About Johnagin, I'll just say that he should be a lot more famous than he is. So funny.

Sbtrkt – Look Away - Listening to this song is like bathing in honey while eating dark chocolate spiked with habaneros. I've listened to it close to 30 or 40 times and still can't tell if Caroline Polacheck's voice is run through AutoTune at one point, or if she's just that sick of a singer. Amazing beats. So simultaneously clean and dirty. 

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – Nobody Wants A Lonley Heart - This is from a really spectacular compilation that came out this month full of covers music by the great Arthur Russell. In keeping with his famous eclecticism, there's a ton of variety on the album, from disco to country to avant garde classical. I can't recommend it enough. 

Arthur Russell – Close My Eyes - The man himself. It's kind of unfair for him, in addition to being an amazing musician and songwriter/composer, to have such an appealing voice. Damn you, Russell! His biography on Wikipedia is something to behold.