The evolution of Nellie McKay has been one of the more intriguing stories to follow in the world of music. Her first record, Get Away from Me, is a critically lauded classic, considered the antithesis of Norah Jones’ release at that time, Come Away with Me. Initially, Get Away from Me was to be a single LP but became the first double disc debut ever released by a female after McKay charmingly, but forcefully, schmoozed Columbia record execs into seeing it her way. She tried the same thing with the follow up, Pretty Little Head, but with far less success. This lead to a long delayed self release of what also ended up being a double disc, and then a subsequent reissue of the discs back on Columbia where she started. The on-again/off-again relationship produced a final product that had some definite gems, and more good songs than bad, but also a few tracks that really maybe should have been left on the cutting room floor. She took these lessons well for the release of her third and finest album, Obligatory Villagers. It was concise, raw, and very in touch with her jazz roots. Alongside of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and Rufus Wainwright’s Release the Stars, it was easily one of the three best albums of 2007. Musically, she was exactly where she needed to be. So what now?
Well, now is the release of her fourth studio venture, Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day. As the title implies, the disc is comprised primarily of songs once sang by Doris Day (with one original). As to be expected for something like this, McKay’s volcano has cooled since Obligatory Villagers. Everything is nice and minimal, laid back and soft. While this may be off putting for the Nellie fans among us who were hoping she would grow her balls bigger and bigger, rather than chopping them off completely, it’s still an intricately touched, beautiful collection of songs.
Let’s be clear. This is technically a jazz album. From the album art to the actual content of the disc, it smacks of Susannah McCorkle or…well…Doris Day. At its heart, however, McKay makes these songs her own and wears them well. She is, after all, not just a vocalist, but a musician as well. This gives her an additional connectivity to the music that a vocalist alone might not always have at her disposal. The result is a collection of pointed arrangements that accomplish a lot within a small amount of space. Yes, this is technically a jazz album…but it sounds like something just slightly beyond the genre.
The two more upbeat tracks, “Crazy Rhythm” and “Dig It,” are infectiously swingin’. She visits Sioux musical interpretations on “Black Hills of Dakota.” She seems to border on surrealistic dreamscapes of sound on “Meditation” and the quaint “Send Me No Flowers” while tapping into something darker, but more awake on “Close Your Eyes.” The sole original, “If I Ever Had a Dream,” fits seamlessly among these classics. The whole meal is peppered with ukulele, brass, violin, mostly light percussion and some masterfully dizzying guitar by Jay Berliner.
From here, I’m hard pressed to wonder if McKay will continue in this vein, or move back toward more irreverent and monumental musings. While I have always hoped for the latter in the past, I can now delight in the knowledge that, really, either direction would be just fine. It seems that young McKay’s golden touch gets a bit stronger with each passing year, anyway. Of course, it’s doubtful that she would follow an album of covers with another album of covers next time around. (But wasn’t it doubtful that she would follow a double disc with another double disc, too?) So while her take on more classic notions of music is so very welcome and so wonderfully executed, no matter where she ventures next with music, I definitely look forward to hearing her rattle off a few swear words.
Here is some video of her being all cute and talking about the new album…
Back when El Deth Records was a newly budding record label, they used to have some insane events around the southeast United States. Their El Halloween was always perennial favorite that generally brought excellent music, packed houses and enough damage that they’d have to change locations every year. The one five years ago, the 2004 edition, occurred on a huge tree farm south of Knoxville. The line-up included David Davis, Dire Con, Obadiah, Next to Never and Matgo Primo, who more or less owned the better part of the night. Now, to commemorate the five year anniversary of that powerful night, and just in time for Halloween, El Deth has released El Deth Halloween 2004: Dead & Live. It’s a recap of Matgo Primo’s set that evening, in it entirety. (Granted, a bootleg of this night has been floating around for years, but now it’s remixed and remastered from the original tracks.)
Nowadays, Matgo Primo is a very refined band that is about as top notch as music can get in the southeast. Back then, in their infancy, they were no less excellent, but a whole lot more raucous. They often wore strange costume fashions while performing, but on this evening they were decked out in zombie gore. They must have played the part well because this recording captures a very uninhibited, gruff aggression on the stage.
None of the songs performed would eventually end up on Matgo Primo’s debut disc, None, Never. Many of them were recorded in the studio at one point for a great lost album that was produced by Simon Belmont. Though those sessions never surfaced, this live recording is still a pretty good document of that time period and some of their earliest songs. Musically, the most immediately engaging are the ones with member Dorain DeLuca shredding a guitar, rather than keys (“80’s Pop” and “Get to the Show,” for example). There is, however, a noticeable and refreshing increase in the intensity after the cops show up and force an intermission. “In Advance of a Broken Arm” pound swift and steady amid shouts of “Fuck the Police!” “Swamp Thing,” written specially for the show and whose sequel appears on None, Never, is a perfect Halloween song with dark noodlings that climax into an impudent horror show of guitars and yelling. Oddly enough, the whole thing begins with a cover of the Ducktales theme song.
There is a deal of banter on the disc, including an entire track of stage announcements warning of police outside the gates. Most of it is engaging as it’s aimed at the audience. None of it detracts from the meat of the thing. Plus it all sits on the ends of each applicable track, which makes for easy skipping if you really can’t handle the swears and nonsense.
If you’re curious about exploring Matgo Primo more, as you very well should be, but can’t seem to find their catalog hanging around, you’re in luck. El Deth Records has the entire Dead & Live set for free download on their website. Click here to go there and check it out.
Jim O’Rourke pretty much does whatever the hell he wants and more power to him. His production style always feels warm and eccentric, regardless of what he is touching. And yet his roster of things he has touched is rather eclectic. He has produced the likes of Wilco, Kahimi Karie, Stereolab and Joanna Newsom, to name a few. He has scored film by Werner Herzog. He’s been a full fledged member of Gastr Del Sol, Loose Fur and Sonic Youth. He played for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He’s pumped out almost two dozen solo albums. He’s received grants and a Grammy. Now he lives in Tokyo, Japan and, to reiterate, he does whatever the hell he wants.
And again…more power to him.
His newest solo effort, recorded in his Tokyo apartment but sounding much larger, is called simply, The Visitor. It is one long and ever evolving track, clocking in at about thirty-eight minutes. The standard O’Rourke fare is ever present. There are clean, acoustic guitars, delicately touched piano keys, soft ambiance, 70’s era electric guitar flourishes, darkish downturns, distant pedal steel sounds, and touches of driving beats with an emphasis on snare rolls. Yep. It’s all there and eloquently arranged as always.
The tone of the piece may perhaps go through the perceived emotions felt through the duration of the title visitor’s visit. That’s just the obvious assumption, though, and the true intent is between O’Rourke and his music. Suffice it to say that the work changes its colors several times through its duration. As best I can figure, there is an undercurrent of longing that seems to hold the whole thing together. It’s dotted along the way with moments mostly comprised of whimsy or mystery, and a sense of intense satisfaction just before the longing and sentiment return for the very end.
It’s a powerful arrangement of sounds. It would serve well as background music, though to fully appreciate it takes a few close and purposeful listens. There are no vocal parts, but it feels as though dialogue is being traded somewhere in the mix. I suggest a dark and quiet room when you are ready to tune in. You’ll have to make a trip to the record store first, though. There are no digital sales of this one.
Hip hop shows, perhaps more so than other music performances, are very hit or miss. A group can either dress it up, like Outkast, or dumb it down, like Grand Buffet. The best of these offer something more than a dude and his homeys rattling off karaoke. Live instruments are always a plus. A good DJ who knows what he’s doing can win me over. Sometimes all you need are twenty or more people on stage, falling over each other or humping or whatever. There are a million ways to go on the stage. Prior to his performance, I was hoping hard that Busdriver (real name Regan John Farquhar) would not be lazily rhyming over an iPod hooked into a d/i box.
And thankfully, he didn’t.
What he did do, was take the stage at the Pilot Light rather unexpectedly, during the time that most of us thought was going to be an intermission between Abstract Rude and himself. There was hardly anyone in the room. I even thought to myself from outside, “Why the hell would the DJ be playing Busdriver if the guy’s taking the stage in a few minutes?” Ah, but there he was, crowned with Christmas lights and doing what he does. As the people outside slowly realized the show was moving on without them, they gathered round and the intensity of it all increased.
Verbally, he is pretty amazing. Far beyond all the autotuned garbage on the radio, Busdriver’s voice is distinct and his skill is often quick and always precise. Backing up that voice was a thunderous onslaught of beats and samples, which he controlled, in part, by himself. He also had a guy, apparently named Matt, at the back of the stage, working what looked like an MPC and occasional guitar. Matt seemed uncomfortable, at first, but eventually was right there with it. I can’t say he seemed to miss a beat, regardless.
One of the beautiful aspects of this set was the truly punk rock ethic to it. As Matt beat his pads, Busdriver pressed buttons and twisted knobs, throwing the whole thing into a frequent and intentional disarray. The cacophony of noise never failed to segue nicely into bouncy and epic beats, evening everything out and working the room into a frenzy.
My only complaint of the evening was the song, “Avantcore,” which I had no idea was so popular around here. It began with some strange disjunctive omission of notes here and there, which seemed interesting at first. The problem is that it never really got going. It seemed to drag on much slower than I’ve ever heard on disc. I’m not sure if this was an intentional choice by the artist, but it was iffy on the stage. Thankfully, the energy of all else made well up for this single snafu of the evening.
This tour is to promote Busdriver’s new record, Jhelli Beam. Hopefully I’ll get a review of it in soon enough.
Here is the video for “Me Time,” the first single from Jhelli Beam:
Here are the rest of his tourdates, in case you want to catch him near you (and you should):
SEP 23 – BIRMINGHAM, AL @ BOTTLETREE
SEP 24 – BATON ROUGE, LA @ CHELSEAS
SEP 25 – DALLAS, TX @ THE CAVERN
SEP 26 – AUSTIN, TX @ RED 7
SEP 27 – HOUSTON, TX @ WALTERS ON WASHINGTON
SEP 28 – SAN ANTONIO, TX @ ROCK BOTTOM
SEP 30 – EL PASO, TX @ BLACK MARKET
OCT 01 – TEMPE, AZ @ CLUB RED
Lastly, here are some MP3’s: