June 2014: Psych Around the World (Cup)

Esmeray – Ayrilik Olsa Bile - I recently sat down and interviewed my new friend Scott McNiece, who, through his company Uncanned Music, provides restaurants with custom soundtracks. (Look for that interview, and a playlist from Scott, soon!) Inspired by his approach to conceptualizing and communicating with clients about his work, I've been doubly-attuned to music in public places. Recently, I got to talking with the owner of a hip Asian-fusion restaurant whose soundtrack seemed to feature a suspicious amount of Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear. She admitted that they were just running a Pandora playlist, and seemed interested in getting an upgrade. I started imagining what would sound cool in there, and over the next few days I sent myself down a deep rabbit hole of international psychedelic music from the '60s and '70s. That's a deep deep hole, as it seems like almost every spot on the globe (Cambodia, Turkey, Nigeria, Brazil, Korea, Iran!) went through the process of working through the psychedelic rock revolution and found a way to reconcile it with their own indigenous sound. Some results are better than others. Some places, like Brazil especially, have clearly woven the psychedelic thing into the heart of their musical fabric and made it their own. (Of course, the overall musical development in Brazil is so incredibly rich, it feels kind of unfair to compare it to other places.) 

But, cycling through this music the way I have been (perfunctory listens, dramatic hops in space and time), it's impossible not to make comparisons. The most immediately striking difference among the music is the basic sonic quality of the recordings. I'm not 100% sure about this, but I bet you could draw some pretty solid conclusions about the political and economic stability of a country based on the way their music from this era sounds. The Cambodian and Iranian recordings (aside from their musical merit), for example, are very clearly marked by rudimentary recording and mixing techniques, while the music from a place like Turkey sounds essentially on par with anything happening in Britain or the U.S. 

The Turkish stuff I encountered in this criminally shallow survey was instantly some of my favorite, and I've included two from the same compilation in this month's mix. These two songs are like a master class in fusing disparate musical traditions, and although I know almost nothing about Turkish music, I feel like there is a very clear native influence in the rhythms and melodies incorporated into familiar rock sounds from that era. The drums on this track illustrate this perfectly, with the typical flashy '60s rock drumming right alongside what sounds like some kind of hand drum and those great handclaps. I had this playing in the background at a gathering recently and someone asked jokingly if it was Jethro Tull. It almost could be for 10-20 seconds at a time, but the singing is unmistakably un-Western. Love it. 

alt-J – Hunger Of The Pine - A brand new track from their forthcoming record, building on the catchy oddness of their debut album that made so many waves in 2012. I love that they've cheekily incorporated a sample from pop music's current Most Annoying Enfant Terrible. Another great example of artists completely ignoring the "rock=live instruments, pop=samples" dichotomy. I have no doubt the whole album (due in September) will be full of 21st century grooves and provocations. 

Vulfpeck – Barbara - Adding a tasty little twist to the ongoing conversation about artist compensation in the Age of Streaming, this funk outfit from LA recently staged a magnificent and trenchant prank on the Spotify overlords. Uploading an album titled Sleepify, comprised of ten completely silent 30-second tracks, and asking people to listen to it on repeat while they slept, the band was able to rack up the equivalent of what they estimate is about $30,000 worth of plays before Spotify removed it.  It's difficult to verify if the band actually got paid (they announced plans to use the money to sponsor a tour of free shows), but I love the whole idea of it. Clearly, Spotify got pretty freaked when they realized what it would mean if other people started subverting the system this way. For another taste of Vulfpeck's mastery of internet-based bone-dry humor check out their website. Oh, their music is also good.

Phil Cohran and Legacy – Theme - I stumbled across Phil Cohran back in September 2012 through an album he did with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a group comprised almost exclusively of his sons. His contributions to jazz, especially to Chicago's musical and cultural quilt as a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), are significant. Composer, trumpet player, harpist, Afrofuturist freakonaut. Most of all, he's an iconoclastic weirdo in the tradition of Moondog and Sun Ra (in whose band he played trumpet), an artist engaged in the marriage of authentic social consciousness and artistic experimentation. Plus, ever since discovering Dorothy Ashby, I've been kind of in love with the idea of jazz harp. 

Instruments Of Science & Technology – ClkClk - I stumbled into the oeuvre of psych-pop kingpin Richard Swift accidentally this month, and spent a day of work bopping along to his super-catchy anachronisms. I was pleasantly surprised (but not too surprised) when I learned that he has produced a bunch of recent winners in the psychedelic pop method, including the latest Damien Jurado, and the much ballyhooed Foxygen album. Currently, he's cashing in on his success, playing bass with the Black Keys on tour. His triple-threatism, as a solo artist/producer/sideman, reminds me of a more pop-friendly second cousin of Jim O'Rourke. Of course, this song betrays almost none of that pop-friendliness, coming from a record of instrumental synthesizer goofs and freakouts under the name Instruments of Science and Technology. Essentially, I couldn't decide which of his great pop tunes to snatch, and love the chuztpah of this project. 

Surachai – 03 (06) - In the 3 or 4 years that I've known him, Surachai's musical universe has had two barely-related poles - metal and analog synths. (Although his move towards synth stuff is pretty clear in his recent Faux Sounds Guest List.) This album finally sees him bridging the gap between them, using a single module called the Cwejman S1 MKII to create the most sinister collection of bleeps and bloops you're likely to hear this year. The vinyl edition of the album not only sounds great, but is one of the more beautiful record/packaging combos I've ever held. For some insight into why that is, check out his explication of the whole process over on the Trash_Audio blog. 

As I've started to listen to more of the kind of electronic music represented by this and the songs it's sandwiched between here, I've started to experience what for me is a kind of counter-intuitive tranquility. Although I tend to gravitate towards lush, multi-timbered musical arrangements, there's something about the sonic clarity of this music, and the empty spaces that thrive among the synthetic precision, that actually seems to provide my brain with a kind of resting place. Even though it's so twitchy, it feels like stepping into a quiet teahouse in the middle of New York City. Sure, in this case maybe the tea is made by a Satan-worshipping barista, but she's a quiet Satan-worshipping barista.

clipping – Taking Off - Inexplicably, Sub Pop seems to have become a bastion of forward-looking rap music, with recent releases from Spoek Mathambo, THEESatisfaction, Shabazz Palaces, and clipping. As hip-hop, especially of the popular variety, disconnects further and further from the dusty sample-centered roots of the music and paints its backdrops with more sterile digital colors, it's intriguing to hear some producers incorporate electronic music's experimental attitude, in addition to its tools.  The slow march away from sampling, and the funk/jazz/r&b traditions so strongly tied to that sampling, seems to have also slowly created an opportunity to abandon the groove imperative in rap. Simply put, music like this is not for dancing. It's not for standing against a wall slowly nodding your head and looking cool. It's not for bumping on your car stereo. It's not for smoking blunts. It's not for raising cultural consciousness. It's not for protesting. It has nothing to do with James Brown or Parliament or Blue Note or Dr. Dre. Yet, it's still unmistakably rap. Beat driven. Confrontational. Verbally precocious. Twitchy and claustrophobic. It's impossible not to think that this kind of sonic provocation somehow represents one of the futures of rap music. 

Siba – Avante - Like I said up top, Brazilian musicians' early adoption of rock sounds and attitudes translates into a rich and fully integrated rock strain that continues to bear fruit. Or, that certainly seems to be the case listening to Afropop Worldwide's recent piece on contemporary Brazilian music, and this great compilation. Unmistakably Brazilian, this track also sounds alternately jazzy, rocking, African, etc.  Listening to this, I can't help but hear what post-rock luminaries like Tortoise would sound like if they had any emotional investment in their music. From what I can tell, there's a lot more great stuff like this from Siba. I'll be digging in further for sure.

Kamuran Akkor – Ikimiz Bir Fidaniz - Part 2 of my Turkish excursion this month. I think this song manages an incredible journey, creating a series of searing musical impressions and vibes that evolve and accrue in unexpected ways. The initial synth line almost sounds like something out of '70s sitcom them song, while the guitar line sounds like an oud on acid. And the singer alternately whispers and stings. All with an accomplished Curtis Mayfield-like groove. Great stuff. 

Carole King – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - In honor of the passing of lyricist Gerry Goffin, I'm including this great song... that he did not write. Still, like so many of the great songs he wrote with Carole King, this one manages to hide real adult pathos right below the surface of this bubbly teenage lament. It's funny how, as I get older, I'm able to better understand the seemingly shallow songs from this era - an experience I had several years ago when I finally sat with Pet Sounds, grocking the very real, very adult yearning alive in the music. Ah, pop subtlety. RIP.

Kim Jung Mi – Beautiful Rivers and Mountains - Great Korean garage-psych-pop? Did anyone know that was a thing? Well, for at least one album it is. So raw and refined at the same time. Searching for this on YouTube, you get a ton of different versions of songs with this title, including by Kim Jung Mi's mentor, Shin Joong Hyun, who produced this album. If anyone can tell me the origins of the song, or what it's about, that would be awesome! Here's a little insight from Kip Berman (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart) on the supercool Talkhouse site. 

Old Money – Gargon - I've been trying to dig more into the electronic/hip-hop scene coming out of South Africa, mostly through checking out the Future Sounds of Mzansi mixtapes that Spoek Mathambo has putting out in advance of the documentary of the same name. As I've learned through a fledgling correspondence with the great Samthing Soweto (Guest List coming soon!!!), the online tools I'm using here in Chicago and the forums being used in SA are not always the same. Spoek Mathambo's mixes seem to be available over here for limited runs on Soundcloud and then disappear. And a lot of the stuff on them is simply nowhere to be found on Spotify. Boo hoo, right? But, my attempts to try to find something in that vein did lead me to this African-influenced hip-hop from Brooklynites Old Money. Sounds pretty damn good, man. 

Sylvia Capova – Préludes, Op. 28: No. 4 in E Minor - Even though I played classical music all through middle and high school, I always feel like I'm just not properly attuned to appreciate most classical music. A part of that is a simple lack of exposure and knowledge. I think part of it, though, is that my brain is just not properly trained to hear and remember melodies, which are unavoidably central to classical music. I can tell you the name of thousands of pop songs two notes into the drum beat, but can't identify probably 99% of melodies that a classical enthusiast could sing as easily as saying their home address. Thanks to a great and unusual version of this on my favorite record of all time (which I wish with all my might was available somewhere I could share it) I know this one backwards and forwards. Oh Chopin. 

Kalunga – Wolele - From a new EP that my old friend Sebastian Guerrero worked on. From Seb: "The tunes are all written by my friend Javier Diaz. He's Cuban, and we draw on aspects of the folkloric music and African religious songs and influence, all percussion using steel pan and balofon." Look for a Guest List from Seb (which should be full of great Latin sounds, yeah?) sometime in the near future. 

Tom Waits – Jockey Full Of Bourbon - Speaking of marimbas... This song crawled up into my head one day and stayed there for about a week. Honestly, I think it's still in there waiting for its chance to pounce again. For my birthday this year I got a great book about Leadbelly with a forward by Tom Waits which demonstrates that his genius as a writer doesn't end at songwriting. 

Otis Redding – Think About It - And sometimes there's simply no veneer over the angst and pain of adult yearning.