Thursday, August 31, 2006

grizzly beta

A Grizzly Bear featurette in the Village Voice

Since the first paragraph mentions a recording by Ed Droste's Great Aunt Marla, here is said song. Apparently, someone in the family got all roots and discovered a stack of these wax pressings she had made in the 1930s that fell on deaf ears and digitized them. I believe Ed told me that there is no documentation of what the original song titles were and whatever sheet music that accompanied them is long-lost now. This is a beguiling little tune though: secretarial, quirky, stressed.

The Bear's read of it devastates me, as does the string arrangement done by the Final Fantasy gent. It's one of my favorite moments of the year. The quotidian items listed here take on a more portent tone on Yellow House, to where they feel as if they are falling from the narrator's grasp, slipping away irretrievably. A despair acts as doppelganger in its stead, and under such a cloak of normalcy, edges closer, the singer that much closer to the edge of that which is unnameable.

"Unknown" by Marla

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

heep see

Magik Markers/ Excepter
August 19th
East River Park

After the last time, I had to give Excepter a rest, but the thought of them performing before the lumbering trajectories of trash barges and speedboats on the East River titillates. Sans watch, I have no concept of time and as I shuffle up, they are wrapping cables in the clamshell, Fell muttering in a bullhorn far from the stage.

Nick Sylvester is (perhaps mistakenly) accredited with floating the theory that Elisa and Leah of Magik Markers, rather than emulate the phallic wankery of rock's past, instead proffer a sapphic version of same self-dating moves. It would explain how hairy, wet, and sloppy Magik Markers shows can be, even with Leah nowhere to be seen and instead two dudes in throwback jerseys "manning" git and bass. Truthful or not, such a viral theory infects the experience, so that when Elisa gets down on her knees to lick her guitar and mic, lots of pale boys begin taking notes. I myself wonder if there's a little toggle switch to be flicked. Elisa is also prone to clutch her guitar tightly to her chest like a bookbinder, hiding her body like a prude as she walks down those high school corridors of her mind.

Stars Like Fleas + Shape-Note Choir
August 22nd

Do you know quite what it takes to look up into the firmament and see it quiver and spin? Do you know just how altered the skull has to be to make the eyes tremble so that the stars spin and jump around like Everclear? Lord knows I've had LCD displays do it and it ain't pretty. Although I haven't seen them previously, I am quite familiar with certain aspects and tendencies of Stars Like Fleas. An old bandmate plays with them and there were many wasted nigh--mornings where I had their early recordings auditioned. At that time, about the only impression left the morning after was how taken they were with Talk Talk's Laughing Stock.

It's hard not to like a band that feels similarly as I do about the stullying boundaries of words, genres, songs, and pushes through that and moves outwards, yet takes it all with them, in the hopes of embracing it all. Tendrils of free jazz, laptop noise, post-rock, chamber strings, and folk mingle, entwine, and converse like some intimate cocktail party. Tonight, they attempt to meld with a 15-person shape-note choir. Before you say "o brother," know that I only cop to the "red" Harry Smith set myself, but no one, least of all the band, quite knows how this ambitious experiment will work out. Rather than the 21-person sprawl they can conjure on-stage, Fleas are trimmed to nine or so, their improvisational off-the-handle tendencies tempered as they seek to find a middle ground with the choir.

My main problem with the show is that there isn't quite enough sonic space for the shape-note singers. Unmic'd, it's hard to discern their voices and even when they are audible, the voices themselves are not quite distinct, sharp, boisterous, or chaotic enough (my favorite aspects of this so-called anti-choir). Early on, the two entities entangle and try to find a place to be, but it seems as if everyone is reticent. About 3/4s through the Fleas's set, it all falls in, the group reigned in yet spacious enough, the choir comfortable and fortified, enough so that the whole thing lifts heavenward (as choirs are wont to do). The performance winds down with hollers of "Hallelujah." Myself, emboldened by enough Maker's Mark and the realization that I too am part of the choir, warble along.

Joanna Newsom
August 24th
McCarren Pool

In one of the few instances of the night where Joanna Newsom revisits one of her old songs off of The Milk-Eyed Mender, a line from "Sadie" sticks out: "And all that I've got...I tie in a knot that I lay at your feet." Whereas last time around she could lay down some crocheted placemats, fine and small, Joanna's Newsongs are more like plunking down The Unicorn Tapestries. Which is to say, they're immense, archaic, epic, to where by the end of each piece, it's hard to see all the way back to the beginning. I can't quite call them songs or even suites, in that there are no discernible choruses or verses. Instead, we get stacked stanzas, dizzying imagery, a continual deluge, the universe pouring through and spilling like milk.

If anything, the previews from Ys are structured more like classical music. How the Van Dyke Parks orchestrations will flesh out or buoy such leviathans, I'm not certain, but the canvas is of a similar size. The scope is hard to fathom or assimilate, the imagery, the wordplay, the harpwork is just too much to absorb in one pass. While the rain cloud ceiling provides a pink-rimmed break in their gray opacity for her set, McCarren Pool is not ideal (not that I've found it to be a quality venue anyway), in that the crowd's attention span wanders but two minutes into each Newsong, to where the gossamer details, the golden purls, and exquisite stitchwork quickly gets swallowed and lost in the babble and text messaging. Where's a trash barge when you need one?

Joanna killed it.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

the last beta

"Think of it as the use of film as film, as an artist uses paint as paint." -- Dennis Hopper

Does Beta like meta? Enough to mention that one time I got tooootally Walter Benjamin-ed so as to suffer through that tedious acid trip sequence from the end of Easy Rider? Enough to pine for a feature-length version of that scene so that it properly recreates the purgatory of an acid trip, ideally with someone who won't stop babbling about how "Jesus was a freedom fighter"? Enough to wish that it also referenced Dennis Hopper's past as an extra in two-bit TV westerns? Or better yet, what if that guy obsessed with Jesus and Billy the Kid was in fact Hopper? Wouldn't that be tidy?

Lucky me, The Last Movie was recently revived at Anthology Film Archives, some two decades on after Hopper's dead career was. When such an announcement is made to acquaintances, the response glibly goes: "Life is too short to watch The Last Movie." Ah, but what is time when the title sequence appears an half-hour in? Hopper is mad about that gear grind, the opening of the film layering the chimes of rock chisels and church steeples so that they too ring like ceremonial bells, like some cosmic cuckoo clock. It's a sound that synch only inside his skull, much like the idea of The Last Movie probably screened better behind his eyelids after licking toads down in Peru than it does in the projection room.

Brother, have I ever been there: imagining the idyllic tomes writ by Adam when in Eden; the softcore papyrus destroyed in the Library of Alexandria; the galleys of Benjamin's Arcade project; the lines that Virginia Woolf wrote on the surface of a lake with rocks in her pocket; the slam poetry Sylvia Plath recited between huffs of gas; the Beach Boys' SMiLE; the portraits you scrap and lug to bonfires; the transcribed pages of babble and energetic scribbles as glimpsed from the heights of mental pinnacles that are untenable in this world. Moonlight turns to butter in your hands; heavenly messages transform into earthly jive.

Hopper surrounds himself with the stoner rollcall: Peter Fonda, Dean Stockwell, Karen Black, Kris Kristofferson, all hang and hanger on at the movie. Amorphous, abstract movies don't bother me: I can lock into dreamtime and maintain if they can, but somewhere along the way, the plot haplessly lost, Hopper attempts to scrape one together. It only turns the Acapulco Gold to lead, weighing The Last Movie down by trying to go straight with some lost gold, digging some Sierra Madre along the way. It only makes the trip that much more of a bummer.

Movies rip holes in the spacetime fabric, create purgatories separate from time, loop without end, and are stocked full of replicas that repeat, re-enact like phantoms do, no longer aware that they are dead. The director acts as high priest, as human conduit for the demigods. Hopper digs all that and reveals such gnostic truths to the movie-going audience. But he then proceeds to get high on his own supply of the sacrosanct sizzurp. "I got plenty in my pants and plenty in my pocket," he slurs at one point. He teaches the natives how to throw John Wayne punches, but they want the real thing: real blood, not karo syrup, real sacrifices, not stuntmen. He can't give that to them and he can;t give that to us. They surround themselves with remnants of Hollywood: bamboo boom mics, paper mache cowboys, phony ponies, until the plywood sets become temples. It starts to look like the set of the Killers' video for "When You Were Young." Perhaps it's even more appropo that the hook goes: "He doesn't look a thing like Jesus." I'd want to string him up, too.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

beta and servants

Like some sort of leitmotif in Pierre Michon's Masters and Servants, his narrators often compare paint to honey. Poured gold, pure in sunlight, a viscous substance, an ambrosia, the metaphor sticks. Five stories meditate on the relationship between painter and subject. Starting with Vincent Van Gogh's portraits of Joseph Roulin, Michon muses on a relationship between the two men far from the easel and canvas, be it hunched over glasses with sugarcubes plunked in la Fee Vert, in slurred speech about la republique or an unanswered exchange through the post office. Michon dwells also on Goya, before wading deeper into the despairing nature of painting, to that artistic gesture that fails against the immense face of time, to obscured, non-existent artists who are lost to the centuries, their work warped and destroyed by sun and bonfire, by negligence, by simply being. People can get lost, even when set into that honey of portraiture.

Going to see my friend Jackie Gendel's exhibit recently, her paint feels more like milk, to where faces seem spilt, diluted, either curdling or evaporating, half and half. Her exhibit is a series of portraits, but the faces would never conjure a specific sitter. The glowing review in New Yorker notes a vegetal palette, stating "the underlying subject, however, isn't the figure or its identity but the process of painting itself, and how...subjects are chameleons who can't make up their minds what gender, setting, or century they inhabit."

Her work devastates me the night I finally get to glimpse them. Nevermind that it's one of the most brutal days I've experienced all year-long. Dealing with a sick family member, with a break-up, with a downpour of rain that soaks me through, by the time I arrive, I feel as if the centrifuge in my mind is about to spin me apart. Walking through the rain, everywhere I look, I see fliers that read: "The female is a chaos." Despite being freshly printed, the paper curls and dissolves in the downpour, to where the appropriated Ezra Pound quote reads like some ancient adage.

Inside, soaked, my white shoes taking on the color of my socks, my shirt clinging to my skin so as to become it, I stare into these hanging portraits. They steal my face and I'm lost in the void of them. Veils of brows, cheeks, lips, eye sockets continually peel away, staged characters and multiple personalities at war. My eyes, anxious, terrified, search in vain for a core, a center to it, a familiar face to reassure me, but none comes forth from her canvasses. I need something to hold onto.

It's a centuries-old struggle to exist, to swim up against the tide of rain and to remain in a place, anyplace. Her portraits (which can all be glimpsed here) embrace both disolution and illumination, the rot and evergreen of this skin, these faces. I can no longer recognize anybody in the gallery, even the face of an old lover turns to that of a stranger. Even milk and honey menaces with such a transformation.
(Her) profile was merging with the foliage, enough in shadow that flesh had become light, a ghost or a thing of the trees...the one whose features we recognize -- the full cheeks and mouth, the long neck and throat -- she sank away at the instant of her cry, disappearing, becoming this superlative creature, exalted and ferocious...more imaginary than angels, but like angels was given glorious body and fabular flesh, and like them let out a sort of exaggerated song.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Beta Blog celebrates Jandek's 47th record release.

When I lived in Austin, there were no markers to memorialize --much less indicate-- that infamous act of public mass murder commited by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966, when he shot nearly fifty people, killing 15 of them. An expert marksman, Whitman played Trophy Hunter with the student body: some were shot through the mouth, others through plate glass, between pick-up trucks, or while walking out of class or a store. A pregnant woman was shot through the abdomen, killing her unborn child. Students coming across the freshly killed thought they were witnessing guerilla theatre or some sort of psychology experiment until they too were absorbed into the terror of the reality.

I attended the University of Texas at Austin some thirty years on and knew fuck-all about that day. Sure, there remained holes in the buildings' limestone from rifle shots that had never been plastered over in the resulting decades and the tower itself still bears nodes from where good ol' boys lugged out their pistols and hunting irons to fire back. Unspoken so as to be forgot, silent so as to soothe that disquieting sound that is the echoing crack of a deer rifle's thunder, all but one trace of the man remained: it loomed over the entire landscape, glowed in the darkness of every night, both seen and unseen.

It's only in reading the oral history that comprises the newest issue of Texas Monthly that the day comes back into the light. Having come of age so as to be within the state lines during such atrocities as the Branch-Davidian Compound killings, the Luby's Massacre in Killeen, Texas, such public mass murder (to say nothing of the words "going postal" entering the vernacular) shockingly enough seemed normal in that state. Despite being knee-deep in the bloody mud of Viet Nam, the quaint smalltownness of Austin that is evoked herein is almost unimaginable. It tells of a time before EMS, before SWAT teams (the transportation of the dead was still handled by funeral parlors; tactical police teams were basically invented in the aftermath of Whitman). The Mayberry-ness of the Drag's storefronts (which border the west end of the campus) at that time and are fondly recalled here are as dead as the boho one captured thirty years on by Richard Linklater in Slacker. Both of these previous realities are now polished smooth by the Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Nobles.

"Whitman was blond, good-looking, solidly built. I remember he seemed like a nice, clean-cut, all-American kind of guy," one recounts. Which is shorthand for saying he was a jock-asshole, but one of the thousands that still populate the university. The legend goes that an undiagnosed brain tumor waas the what made him ascend those stairs, though its more plausiable his amphetamine intake had more than a little to do with it. But what makes an All-American man see the world in a new, disturbing, isolated manner? What makes him create his own harrowing universe where he is the only inhabitant, the only assailant, the lone gunman?

Portrait of Whitman as a Young Man.

Seven years previous to the exact month, Texas Monthly ran an article about that enigmatic figure who still haunts the subconscious of Texas music, Jandek. Read about his legend elsewhere, or else watch Jandek on Corwood, but know this: music is not public, but extremely private; it grows and festers inside your skull. At that time, it was a shock to the esoteric music community of Texas that some blonde chick, as oppposed to some bespectacled cllector scum, had tracked him down and (gulp) had a beer with him. He lives as an anonymous normal businessman in Houston: black tie, black suit, with no explanation for the madness of the music that results, save that it's kin to growing snap peas. It made Charalambides' Christina Carter weep.

In much the same way that the ghost-white cassettes of Daniel Johnston floated at the periphery of the memory of Austinites, revealing to those with ears this devastating world that almost anyone could fall into if they but stepped towards the monolith, it was the same for Houston's denizens. One musician friend recalls flipping through record after record of this shirtless, bony man, seeing this parallel world evoked in blurry Kodachrome of pork-chop portraiture, backyards, wood-plank houses, cheap crepuscular drum kits, yet always flipping past them. And as Dante has Beatrice and Johnston has Laurie, Jandek has Nancy.

It would be tidy to suggest that in the forty years since the Whitman shootings there, have been forty Jandek records, except that with the release of Glasgow Monday/ The Cell, Janky's now on his 47th, a double disc of piano and whispers, contrabass and tuned toms. Perhaps he aims instead to make as many records as there were bullets that day?
He was one of those guys who got red-faced when he was upset, and he was very flushed when he walked in the door. He was carrying an architectural drawing that I suppose he wanted to show me, but the moment he saw that I had a baby grand in my living room, he dropped his papers, sat down, and played “Claire de Lune.” It’s a fairly tough little tune to play, but he did it beautifully. Then he played something else, though I don’t remember what. When all that red had drained out of his face, he stood up. I said, “Well, I’ll see you in class tomorrow, Charlie.” He said, “Okay,” and left.
Reading the Whitman article by day, I screen the DVD release of Glasgow Sunday, his live public debut, in the night. The thought that there would ever come to pass a time when there would be a concert video of Jandek seemed as likely as meeting your own skeleton. Never shall that twain meet. And yet, that skeleton stands before us now, a face to our own mortality. Its bones clang, both heard and seen. The warm flesh that is music is riddled now with worms, hanging from those arms.
In early September of 1961 he was standing on the seventh-floor balcony of the Goodall Wooten dorm, looking at the Tower, when he turned to a friend and said, “You know, that would be a great place to go up with a rifle and shoot people. You could hold off an army for as long as you wanted.” He wasn’t like you or me; instead of seeing the Tower, he saw a fortress. Instead of rain spouts, he saw gun turrets.
Finally witnessing this wraith-like figure, so unknowable yet familiar after decades of seeing his face on records that accrue and read like so many "Missing" bulletins on a curdled milk carton, like an innocent time killed on scalding hot pavement, he appears ancient, ageless. When he strums that first black note here, making adepts like Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson scurry to keep up with him, Jandek is resurrected as the last of the Texas bluesmen (or at least the dessicated corpse of Stevie Ray Vaughn). His tuning untempered, sensical and orderly only in his mind, the arrythmic tick of his heart untappable by others, his band scrambles to tie the skeleton back together. If Mance Lipscomb or Lightnin' Hopkins had played after their skin fell off the bone, it would've sounded as prophetic as Six and Six. The difference being that when Jandek saw a guitar, he saw not an instrument to affirm life (and the blues do embrace and celebrate this earth), but something that instead resounds with encroaching death, an instrument that is a wooden box, as hollow as its occupant.

Friday, August 11, 2006

beta renovatur

Giacinto Scelsi - Natura Renovatur
My last piece with Lindsey Thomas, my editor in Minneapolis, regarding a figure I'd dreamed of writing about for years. If it's my last ride, it was a sweet one.

Rub'n'Tug - Campfire
Unfortunately, there was no room to insert the word "key" into "bumping'n'grinding," but I guess that it'd just make for a redundant coke joke.

Howard Tate - A Portrait of Howard
If only I had kept in mind Howard's maxim to "get it while you can," perhaps my heart wouldn't be in such a state.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Dig the Vetiver "box set" in the back.

Vetiver - Find Me Gone

Two recent gospel comps on Soul Jazz and Numero Group that allow me to quote Mike McGonigal and make Jesus jokes, but not the other way around.

Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan
Mark Fosson - The Lost Takoma Sessions
(scroll down)

As my Vetiver piece no doubt attests, I have surprised myself by being wholly impressed with the newest. This after finding the first album ho-hum and subsequently missing Cabic's set at the Bowery. It probably didn't help matters that I detested co-hort Devendra Banhart's last one (and let's not mention the reggae 12"), but the craftsmanship and interplay here is delectable. And rather than being like a hairshirt, Cabic's increased Bolanisms are as comforting as an old, threadbare tee, breezy, worn, but perfect for the summer. Almost everyone I've chatted to about this album (meaning Grizzly Bear and uh...Chris Robinson) also digs it, so it's not just the bourbonade talking here.

And do I ever feel foolish for missing all fourteen of those "Forever Changes performed in its entirety" Arthur Lee & Love gigs that came through the past five years or so. Maybe I should've gone to Os Mutantes to bathe in such faded light, too, lest it extinguish on this earth? Yet missing Arthur feels like part and parcel for the Love experience. Unappreciated (or should it just be unrequited?), Forever Changes was lost on ears with its ellipses, syncopes, word games, ever-sprawling California roads and open-ended forever chord changes. MacLean was cold in the ground by the time of MOJO's black magick revival, and did they ever unearth Johnny Echols? Either way, a bummer in the summer...