The Uncoverables Podcast: Matthew Shipp Interview

This week’s podcast features a talk with underground New York legend Matthew Shipp who first gained recognition as a member of David S. Ware’s band in the 1980s before collaborating with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, El-P, Evan Parker, and everyone in between.  He comes to Montreal on September 18th to play with Thomas Lehn (AT/DE) and John Butcher (UK).

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Vince Staples-Big Fish Theory: ALBUM REVIEW

Vince Staples’s persona is perhaps most well explained by his case for pandas as his favourite animal: “He thinks they all wanna die. It’s true that zookeepers often have to force them to procreate. Vince cites that—and the fact they just look so sad—as evidence they hate being alive. They’re his favourite animal.”  The world is dark and terrible, but Staples also sounds like he’s half playing around all the time as if the concept of thinking the world is gross is “corny”—one of his most used words.  On “Big Fish Theory,” Staples maintains his usual drawl speech and coy attitude as huge, biting electronic-influenced beats explode beneath him and hooks talk up his come up, moving from little pond problems to “countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.”

The album opens in murky territory with whistling wind and sparse electronic melody.  Vince uses a dog-eat-dog type metaphor with “Crabs in a Bucket” to discuss the ruthless world of underground rap shows.  As becomes common on the record, he tosses in a line about the black-entrepreneur experience in the United States: “Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play/They don’t ever want to see the black man eat,” but he hasn’t yet reached the “bitch I’m going all in” snarl of the back half of the record. “Big Fish” sees Staples lock into first gear.  He still talks about getting past the little-town problems of his neighborhood, but as the hollow bass rolls through and Juicy J recites the boasting, robotic hook, the album alludes to a more commanding attitude.

An interlude follows to keep things under control, but Staples pops out some more fierce bars over the dance-vibe of “Love Can Be…”  Admittedly, his first verse—which follows a cheeky, fast-paced Kilo Kish verse and a rather violent build-up of electronic static—is a bit underwhelming.  For a three-minute track, the wait for a pummeling set of bars is a bit long, but after spouting off some quick phrases, Staples commands that biting electronic line with a verse about choosing money over women.  Again, this whole “chase a check never chase a bitch” attitude seems a bit half-sarcastic considering that Staples doesn’t exactly seem to be all that interested in wealth.  There’s just always some sense of Staples thinking all this rap shit is ridiculous while falling into certain tropes—it makes the record fun to sit with and reinterpret.

“745” continues the discussion of women in his life and the desires he was fed as a child and how they’ve led him down the wrong road: “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs/All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss… All my life pretty women done told me lies.”  Considering his later lyric “This is for my future baby mama/Hope your skin is black as midnight,” there seems to be an element of race involved: “Eyes can’t hide your hate for me/Maybe you was made for the Maybelline.”  Brands like Maybelline have told him to desire rich white models for his whole life, but at the end of the day he can’t relate to these people and they’ve wronged him in the past.

After another quick interlude, the album starts a continuous string of savage.  Produced by PC-music weirdo SOPHIE, “Yeah Right” hits as hard as just about any rap track has this year with a huge distorted 808. Vince offers a series of questions “Do the trap jump? Is the plug right? Got your head right?… Pretty woman wanna slit the wrist/Pretty woman wanna be a rich man’s bitch” then announces they’re full of shit with the repetitive chorus of “yeah right.” Kendrick Lamar then shows up for a traditional “I can put rappers on life-support/everyone wants to kill me” feature. It bangs.  Some other highlights include the boiling bass-line of “BagBak,” the percussive energy of “Homage,” and the sludgy industry of “SAMO.”

Vince Staples has his cards in the right place. With voices like Stormzy and Skepta starting to gain traction in the US, Staples seems to be incorporating a bit of UK-grime influence, while also wearing his American rap influences on his sleeve.  “745” sounds like an electronic version of some west coast rap slow-jam from the 90s and his bars could seem fit just about anywhere as quick-tempo jams also find place on the record.  His songwriting is like punk-rock jabs rather than the lengthy jazz freak-outs of Kendrick Lamar or the wacky post-punk fusions of Danny Brown, but with the help of producers SOPHIE, Flume, Ray Brady, and Zack Sekoff, Staples combines new and old to look to the future.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Perfume Genius-No Shape: Album Review

Solo project of Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius has been prolific throughout the current decade and never fallen short of staying true to their songwriting footing.  “No Shape,” their latest, isn’t earth shattering and doesn’t mark a dismissal from Hadreas’s glam-baroque pop (with a dash of heartfelt ballad) background, however, it’s a logical step forward and never falters in delivering entertaining, emotionally moving material.

The album opens with a great sampling of the dynamic range to come. We open with a tiny, twinkling piano line as Hadreas sings esoterically about how our true self is bound to come out eventually: “Even in hiding/Find it knows you.”  As he rounds the corner of his chorus, a huge explosion of instruments and vocals soars to the moon and back.  The album continuously bounces between soaring hugeness and subdued tenderness and right from the get-go Hadreas gives his listener a taste of both sides of the spectrum.

“Slip Away” follows with one of the best standalone tracks on the record. Percussive bass sounds open before Hadreas unleashes infectious catchiness with each passing lyric. The chorus flies in leaps and bounds with pounding drums, rattling cymbals, and some huge plucked melodic motions. The lyrics bleed empowerment, touching upon loving the way you want to love: “They’ll never break the shape we take/Baby let all them voices slip away.” It’s a true anthem and maintains all the momentum suggested in the introduction.

From here, the album operates in groups of songs a bit more. Ideas grow over handfuls of songs with ups in downs in energy and dynamics carrying over from track to track as well. Lyrically, “Just Like Love,” “Go Ahead,” and “Valley” continue the notion of “be yourself,” but hone in on feeling confident and effortless in public. First, Hadreas encourages a child to ignore those who judge him: “They’ll talk/Give them every reason/For child, you walk,” then “Go Ahead” takes a mission statement of ‘go ahead and judge I’m unbothered,’ before “Valley” wonders “How long must we live right/Before we don’t even have to try?”

These three tracks are all connected sonically by some slightly more subdued grooves—in comparison to the first pair of tracks—that don’t quite reach the balladic levels of later tracks like “Alan” or “Braid.” Hadreas generally works in pretty small cells with songwriting—most of his tracks don’t run much longer than three minutes—so, having three or four of them intertwined in theme and sonic pallet makes the album’s momentum rather effortless.

Later, some of Hadreas’s most breathtaking moments come when he places his voice out in space completely untethered. The final track, “Alan,” is the most straightforward example. His flying high vocals reach a blissful purity as he sings to his lover: “You need me/Rest easy/I’m here/How weird.” Elsewhere, Hadreas doesn’t completely let his listener in on his plan. “Valley” is has a nice little chugging guitar line, but all of the sudden the space is cleared for a pillow of strings (and organ?) with Hadreas crying out over the top.  He’s got the delicacy to execute these floating moments and the various approaches he takes to them makes for a varying listening experience.

Admittedly there are a few tracks here and there that are less notable than others. “Choir” and “Die 4 U” are particularly left field lyrically, but the minimalism in the sonic material suggests that the lyrics should be the main focus.  The result is a bit of stagnation, but luckily things pick back up a bit to finish the record strong.

A review of this record would also be incomplete without mention of the fantastic Weyes Blood feature.  The song “Sides” takes up a thesis about the balance between alone time and letting one’s significant other into one’s world in times of trouble with Hadreas and Natalie Mering each sharing a verse.  More than just adding her voice to the equation, Mering seems to take over the sonic fingerprint of the song as her voice comes into play, making for a complementary yet welcome change of pace.  Perhaps Hadreas’s next record could look to recreate this a bit more often.

Yet again, Perfume Genius delivers with “No Shape.”  It’s a sonic tour de force with biting lyrics and moments of tender heart-wrench provided solely by Hadreas’s voice.  An occasional weak spot falls relatively unnoticed as the boundless momentum pushes energy forward from beginning to end.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble-Polygon: Album Review

On his follow-up to “Saturated Colour,” Montreal sax player Erik Hove refines his coloristic tonal world with splashes of left-field harmonies decorating groove-oriented song forms.  As solos from Canadian great Andy King and New York-based, Montreal expat Anna Webber come to the fore, the work finds pockets of small ensemble ideology within the atmosphere of sound.  Perhaps Hove broadcasts his influences a bit too forwardly on “Drift,” and perhaps a bit more time could’ve been spent out in space with inter-ensemble communication (i.e. “Inversions”), but “Polygon” is a digestible collection of well-written tunes in a sound aesthetic unique to Hove.

Spectralism is the big word dropped in conversation with Hove in regards to his chamber ensemble.  Having received a master’s degree in composition at McGill, he spent as much time as possible with the likes of Ligeti and Grisey, hoping to incorporate their tonal language into a jazz setting.  To try and explain spectralism quickly, the movement began with computer analysis in an effort to rethink harmony and timbre.  The texture is made tense by contradicting rhythmic parts with relentless repetition and the harmonies are generally extremely closely voiced with the use of quarter tones rather than the usual half and whole steps.

https://youtu.be/rXaNFBzgDWI

This influence is most audible in the work of the large ensemble.  “Tessellation” opens the album with a plucked string melody that repeats obsessively before some strange, angular melodies come through with each chord sounding superbly harsh on the downbeats of the odd meter.  The return of these parts with the second chorus of Hove’s solo makes for a hectic space and a riveting backdrop for his fiery saxophone lines.

As is the case with much of the first five tracks, the dust clears for Hove to take a solo in the center over the bass and drums.  A new addition here is the electronic drone sound that sits in the background.  It helps a great deal with the solos if the rest of the ensemble drops out for the beginning so that the soloist has some time to develop their ideas and Hove does this, but the electronic drone sound remains, making the return of the rest of the ensemble much more cohesive—especially considering the lack of piano.

“Fractured” is perhaps a bit more melodically driven as Webber brings forward a squirrely melody at the front of the track, with Hove battling her with Sax melody as clashes of harmony come at the end.  Although the electronics are absent, the lightness of delivery makes the return of the chords within the solo sensible.  Not to the point of becoming one dimensional or tiring, but the next three tracks largely continue in the vein of the first pair with angular grooves and decorative chords.

“Inversions” is much more focused on sonic landscape.  The track opens with a big drone sound and pulsing woodwinds and strings and never fully embraces a meter.  Instead, the big crystal of sound dissolves to find Hove, King, and a good chunk of the ensemble (Jean René**  is in their as well as drummer Evan Tighe) trading off ideas out in disorienting free space.

Personally, I find this more appealing than the other meterless-sounding creation “Drift,” which essentially adds more and more harmony onto the foundation to amass a mind-bending crunch at around the six minute mark.  It feels too much like a piece of spectralism that’s been written before, whereas “Inversions” brings in the idea of improvisation more strongly.  I also feel as though more free improvisation could have come into play earlier on the work.  Still, the record never really finds a dull moment.

Bassist Rémi-Jean Leblanc and drummer Evan Tighe bring stand-out performances to back up the various soloists from track to track.  For instance, on the next track, “Tetrahedrons,” King is given free space to fire off some biting bop lines and Tighe is with him at every turn.  I’m sure Andy King doesn’t need any help crafting intriguing material on his own, but the communication between him and Tighe makes the moment that much more compelling.

Erik Hove is certainly an innovator and “Polygon” again showcases his band-leading skills.  Each track sounds fantastic and Hove is more commanding of the tonal pallet of spectralism than on his last effort.  In terms of overall album flow, I think there are some places that could’ve been presented a bit better, but it’s clear that his career will continue to blossom with each coming release.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

**review originally listed Josh Zubot as the soloist here, but it is in fact Jean René, I regret this error and thank Erik for pointing it out as well as reading my review.

Arca-Arca: Album Review

Arca’s video “Reverie” is a good marker for the overall effect of his self-titled work and a true must see of 2017.  Stilted up like a gazelle, Alejandro Ghersi painstakingly inches back and forth on screen, before an animalistic phallic shape emerges out of his groin and takes control of his body, leaving his face in even more pain.  From his rear, the viewer sees blood stains.  It’s confrontational, unsettling, and carries the scars of the queer experience.

Sonically, this is embodied with the violent, minimal sound space that underpins Arca’s whispery vocals—a new addition to his songwriting.  With lyrics in Spanish, I’m admittedly not listening for a lyrical or poetic experience.  Those interested can find translations online, but Arca also conveys his message with his sound alone.  His sense of space is breathtaking and the vocals offer another gateway to his psyche.

The album requires a front to back experience.  With a couple stand-alone tracks coming towards the end, the listener needs to hear the way the work builds up into “Reverie” and “Fugaces” to fully get absorbed.  Pressing play on the opener “Piel,” there’s just a presence there with vocals harping on a simple descending melodic pattern.  Florescent flashes come next with high drones squealing to add to the atmosphere and white noise giving a cushion to the low end.  “Anoche” beefs itself up a little bit at the chorus, but it still carries the same patience as instrumental cues come only with the lilt of the vocals.

“Reverie” becomes the first singular piece, as all the ideas thus far coalesce into one jolting mass.  The tempo is still a bit abstracted, but as the catchy chorus seeps into your pores, smearing rhythmic activity gives the illusion of speed and spilling noise.  Three tracks later, “Desafio” falls along the same wavelength with another sing-able chorus and a great deal of rhythmic activity making the track sing, but before then Arca takes a step back.

“Castration” sees the absence of vocals and a rumination on a single industrial loop, whereas “Sin Rumbo” shifts back to the vocals with some stunning high notes.  Arca isn’t necessarily adding songs to the world for other folks to sing, but the experience of the ups and downs of the recording makes it emotionally moving.  Perhaps by the standards of a more straightforward pop artist, his sonic design wouldn’t be so strong, but within the atmosphere of this project, they stick out.

Arca’s talent for pure sound also comes through in his use of sound effects and fascinating textures.  The track “Whip” presents the most obvious example with his on-going artistic connection between sex and violence coming through in the BDSM sounding whip sample that opens the track.  Elsewhere, sound-art type decisions are more used to highlight the space.  “Saunter,” for instance, evokes sci-fi with alien surface noise.

The record’s “ballad”—if you will—is beautiful, but perhaps could’ve been blown out a bit more.  Drones and keyboards float in and Arca’s voice is deeper than most spots on the record.  The chorus is pure bliss with a cushion of backing vocals and a distant melodic device, but it just fades out a bit too quickly.  This could’ve been a five-minute mammoth, making for a slightly more flourishing centerpiece.  After that, the record wraps up with a vocal epilogue of sorts in “Miel” and an instrumental epilogue of sorts in “Child.”

Arca’s got such a unique sonic fingerprint.  Everything he does is completely left-field, but relatable at the same time and the addition of his voice is flawless.  Perhaps some architectural issues could sort themselves out on the next record, but his self-titled has again left a great impression on the electronic art-musical landscape.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

On the Monthly: April 2016

lol at this post, here’s 6 albums that I rated highly in somewhat of a linear fashion.

Valeda-Unearth

“On Unearth, she keeps her lyrics and sounds abstract and sparse, but also manages to offer an intimate, moving experience.”

Full Review

Jay Som-Everybody Works

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Matthew Shipp, Whit Dickey, Mat Maneri-Vessel in Orbit

“From beginning to end, the album pulses with life.  These musicians hold blues and swing in everything they do, but they sound ridiculously fresh, unique, and in the moment at all times.  Dickey is a painter at the drums.  He never lays down the rhythm too obviously, yet the allusions to swing can always be heard.  “Space Walk” reads as barren and contrasts the slightly more consistent rhythmic drive of the first track.  Dickey is all over his toms on the track, but he also taps at the ride cymbal with the swell of each miniature musical phrase.”

Full Review

Kendrick Lamar-DAMN.

“Damn isn’t a concept album, it isn’t a huge, sweeping narrative, and, truthfully, it isn’t packed with as much depth and nuance as To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid Maad City.  However, it features the best rapper of the current moment doing exactly what he needed to after an 80-minute cinematic ploy.  Damn features Kendrick contemplating his position and humility, it features his right-of-passage radio hit with Rihanna, and it features him plain old rapping his ass off.  It doesn’t feature the hyper-organization of To Pimp a Butterfly, nor does it feature the linear story telling of Good Kid, but what Kendrick has done is he’s just exploded all his usual forms and simply delivered song after song with incredible production, mind-blowing beat changes, and catchy hooks.”

Full Review

Slowdive-Slowdive

“All too often, comeback albums are a product of some combination of a popular middle-aged band needing retirement funds, labels at a loss for sales with young folks, and the human condition’s constant desperation for the past.  The formerly critically-shunned shoegazers missed all of that.”

Full Review

Mount Eerie-A Crow Looked at Me

A Crow Looked at Me is a glance at the stream of consciousness ramblings of Phil Elverum as he mourns the loss of his wife Genvieve Castree to cancer in July of 2016.  Besides the final song where Elverum makes eye contact with a crow, later hears his daughter talking about a crow in her dreams, and finally finds peace in the fact that the crow is the reincarnation of his wife, the album doesn’t dabble in a whole lot of symbolism or poetic devices, and the music consists of matching simplicity.  It’s a piece without answers or goals—it’s simply a man trying to find catharsis in speaking his day-to-day truth.”

Full Review

Jaimie Branch-Fly or Die: Album Review

Jaimie Branch’s debut is a longtime coming.  Having grown up in the heart of Chicago’s music scene and relocated to New York City, she’s had a role in improvising, hip-hop, and indie rock scenes for years and she’s also worked as a sound person, enjoying punk and underground aesthetics of all creeds—in interviews, she’ll mention everyone from Sun Ra to Matana Roberts to Show Me the Body.

“Fly or Die” didn’t come together in a conventional manner and it owes a little bit to each of the traditions that Branch has experienced over the years.  The record seamlessly incorporates post-production guitar ramblings, live set interpolations, and dubbed over trumpet trios without losing the sense of a single paint stroke.

Themes 1, 2, and “Theme Nothing” operate as major focal points.  After a 15 second snack of trumpet distortion, Chad Taylor, Tomeka Reid, and Jason Ajemian combine forces to set the tone with a driving minor groove. Reid and Ajemian’s chemistry is immediate, as they trade off little pieces of bass line over Taylor’s melodic approach to the kit. Branch enters with an ascending line with a lot of room for reinterpretation, leading to a lot of interchange between her and Taylor.

One recurring theme on the record seems to be abstracting distinctions between solo and ensemble, written melody and improvised and this track immediately touches upon that. Branch leads the charge into the back end of the track, which eventually dissolves into a dramatic landscape aided by longing, bowed string melodies and some acoustic guitar ramblings from “guest artist” Matt Schneider.  “Meanwhile” then focusses in on Schneider, with Taylor eventually building back the energy for his final fill into “Theme 2.”  Although set-up a bit differently, the process somewhat repeats here with another fun, driving groove that gradually falls off into obscurity.

“Theme 2’s” end finds another important skill of Branch.  As I’ve said, the album is highly varied, but still feels like one paint stroke and part of that comes from the gradual introduction of the next melody at the end of the previous tune—a tactic that comes up all over the project.  Here, Reid and Ajemian paint a hectic backdrop and, as the dust settles, Branch introduces the balladic melody for the next track.

This first utterance of the “Leaves of Glass” melody gives off the impression of a ballad and the track initially has a sense of cleanliness to combat the violent end of “Theme 2,” but nothing is as it seems on a Jaimie Branch record and as the phrase repeats itself, the added trumpet parts lead the overall mood into another dystopian noise ploy.  It’s frankly amazing that Branch is able to move through these moods with such ease and her melodic knack helps ground each splash of emotion.

“The Storm” continues the noisiness and showcases one of the best examples of Branch’s use of recording technology.  After the “nose dives,” as Jaimie calls them, where each member of the band descends through the whole range of their instrument, a trumpet player spits out a bunch of biting, be-bop oriented lines.  This trumpet player is actually guest artist Ben Lamar Gay and Branch is making all of the static radio noise with extended techniques right up against the microphone.  This song is also taken from a live performance.

Had Branch not told me these details, I might not have even noticed–It really says a lot about a composer if their musical stamp is so ingrained in the work that even when they hand off the spotlight to another player on the same instrument, their personality reigns true.  After this tune, “Waltzer” dedicates itself a bit more to the notion of a ballad and “Theme Nothing” delivers another pulverizing groove to finish of the project.

As a whole, this record could appeal to a lot of music heads out there. There’s instances of blissful groove, but they get balanced out by distorted messes.  The production of the project is also impeccable and almost lends itself to the studio ideas of lo-fi folk movements from the late 90s by cutting and pasting all sorts of different ideas into one flowing collage of sound. Branch sounds poised as just about any other band leader out there right now and this album is a testament to her undying creativity and successfully carves out an exciting, unique position in the contemporary instrumental music realm.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10