Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Only connect... review of Odd Nosdam's 'Burner'... into the SPACE of the American Sublime...

I was late-night cruising the net when I came across an mp3 download and half-recognised the name so I snaffled it and when I played it back I was blown away. I followed the links and bought the album from Anticon direct - then forgot about it. (Well, I said it was late - and a certain amount of painkiller had been taken...) Ten days onwards it arrived and what a pleasant surprise... Back in the world of Odd Nosdam again, whom I knew from his work in Clouddead. But the cd I have by them has an ethereal quality to it, a fuzziness and a dreaminess. Neo-beat poetics recorded from the next mountain over if you ever read 'Desolation Angels' – which everyone should... (Dear God... in checking out a link for the Kerouac epic – I discovered that 'Bad Company' – a crap band from yesteryear with the appallingly overrated Paul Rodgers on squarking ersatz Americana vocals – had had the audacity/stupidity – delete where appropriate - to record an album in 1979 with the same name – 'Desolation Angels'... Further comment is superfluous... except to say that I would rather take a ball-peen hammer to my genitals than ever have to listen to it). However... This album – 'Burner' – is sharper and because of that, more dense, if that doesn't seem a contradiction. Because the layers are more defined. 'Lo-fi' is always the expression associated with Nosdam and you can hear some of that sonic roughness and granularity here but there is a subtle production going on behind the scenes. You can HEAR the roughness because of the disguised sharpness. An interesting push and pull between the foregrounding of the process- rough and ready street recordings etc and electronic grit meshed into a deceptively smooth production.

Just to be obscure(hey, we don't care, that's where we wallow!) the cd opens with a track called 'Untitled One.' Which also gives it a sense of incompleteness, a project that's ongoing, open-ended and that very much sums up the listening experience. The opening samples of – what? - old country music? and what sounds like a chunk of a Leone soundtrack ('Once upon a time in America,' maybe? Seems annoyingly familiar...) gives a flavour of something pulled out of the past, a rather sweet nostalgia. And there is a lot of melody among the found sounds and samples and 'My Bloody Valentine'- type distortion washes (for a quick reference point) – that intriguing mix that the American avant garde as it were of pop music has always handled so well. Think of the Velvet Underground. Or Husker Du at their melancholy best. Avant garde and pop at the same time and interdependently depending on each other to work. Drums come in slowly then out again – never allowed to settle. Four on the floor this is not. Referencing hip-hop – it goes way beyond...

Track two is 'Refreshing Beverage.' Whatever. Drums interrupted by sampled voice clips and background noise, Martin Dosh on 'Killer Rhodes' – which I figure is the source of the keyboard riff threaded through. Again, you have the mix of strong simple melodic figures being broken up by the drums coming in and out, fading and receding, stopping and starting - and washes of electronic noise. These are the materials Odd Nosdam – hey, can I call you Odd? - uses throughout. Which sounds very reductive when coldly written here – until you hear it and realise the complexity he achieves. This is cinematic music (for me) in its conception and execution – and reception.

'Choke' – sampled voices and some very distant music – a radio – then the drums and instruments building up riffs over samples with a simple melodica phrase repeated.

'Small Mr Man Pants.' Ending on an aquatic sounding fluid feedbacky loop – backwards tape?

'Untitled Two.' Like a wind and a campfire beginning as electronic keyboard droney
long-held notes come up to be slowly overlaid by noise and distanced samples – i.e. you don't know what they are – could be voices in the distance. No drums – cymbals at a couple of points, very faintly splashing – just space... and the long held chords slowly building, getting louder until they abruptly drop out leaving street (?) voices and hissing feedback (the slow chords can be heard faintly coming in deep at the end as a sample ...)

On '11th venue Freakout pts 1 and 2 ' he enlists Mike Patton on vocals and sundry keyboards and noise from others, (Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, Dee Kesler and Jessica Bayliff). It starts with distant sounds and voices and a faintly-heard bass line marking out a simple chord sequence etched by keyboard, very dubby reverby percussion enters coming in and out, starting and stopping. Goes into sampled voices (from the mike he [famously] hung out in the street outside his apartment?) and a bell-like keyboard riff.

'Part two' and the drums sound live – or liver, (not as in meat but live-r) more full in the mix with crashing, hissing cymbals as Mike Patton's vocals enter. Acoustic guitars come in on a stop time break almost – then the voices and percussion resume – ending on a voice sample, which sounds like Anthony Hopkins but I can't place the context – one for the obsessionals out there in dreamland - over a fade out...

'Clouded.' Crackling – not the burnt fat round a joint of pork (for our English readers – I realise that others might draw weird ambiguities out of that phrase...) but - a fire or just glitchy electronics as a slow two chord drone builds and Liz Hodson's voice just floats wordlessly over all. Short and ethereal...

'Untitled three' – Jessica Bayliff sings over – again - slow long-held chords. Lyrics this time! Reprising track one – 'Untitled One' - with added vocal... an interesting slight return. Drums edge in – minimal and falling back into the mix slightly. Drums here are more – suggestions - not the driving force. I'm reminded of the jazz technique where players don't state the obvious beat or inversion of a chord because they all know it anyway so imply it instead – deferring the obvious– then it comes back, rising – vocals multitracked but going further down as the long-held chords lift in volume – then those quasi-stop-time breaks where the drums fall out for a bar or two.
Goes out on what could be a reversed riff.

'Gun' – strange mutters and shouts and a racheting sound like a cross between a train starting up and a sprocket clanking in a machine that's falling into water.. (DJ Spleenbaby has a track that uses something similar!). Starts to build on a strange two and four. Sounds like the sea in the background – something oceanic in there as a counter rhythm. Then it stops, stutters, starts again as if a tape machine is screwing up – (unless it's my cd player!). More noise laid on as the beat fades and gets buried finally jumping into -

'Upsetter.' More train-like noise. Rising almost squealing note – like brakes being applied as the track slowly winds down and segues into -

'Flying Saucer Attack.' Long deep notes drone – Jessica Edwards and Jesse Edwards on guitars (it says here...) One chord... with a higher overtone(?) variational cross rhythm – think of a flanger sweep cutting across... after a minute or two (who's counting? This is quite hypnotic) you can pick out some crossrhythmic variations – buried samples, processed feedback, who knows what? Interestingly – you expect the drums to come in – but they don't. It just fades out...

Something here reminds me of Brian Wilson, recently redux with 'Smile.' Crossed with Michael Gira's 'Angels of Light' incarnation. Not in the sense of obvious influence or similar sound textures, rather in the aesthetic ambition to go beyond the now-obvious of pop and rock – and hip-hop.

And I see Odd, along with these guys, as slap bang in the Great Tradition – of American Mavericks...

Maybe it's my own preoccupations but moving back from music per se to wider related artistic currents, I see the shadow of Burroughs (and Brion Gysin) looming – the cut-ups that give up different/hidden meanings when re-aligned and mashed together with beats and tunes and other shards of sound and found noise. Of course, these have become accepted strategies by now, assimilated into music's mainstream – so rapidly that it is easy to forget that music like this out on the airwaves and the mainstream not so long ago would have sounded incomprehensible – or be viewed as some dadaist prank or Fluxus joke. Much has been said and written about Old Bill's influence on contemporary culture – more so in music, I think it will be discovered, than in literature – I'm not going to go over old ground here. Just mark the signposts...

And maybe the phrase 'American Mavericks' is misleading – in the sense that it can be argued that since American culture came of age in the 19th Century, it has been the 'Mavericks' who were the leaders and dominant influences – and that they are only seen as 'maverick' in relation to European high art culture? That a truly American culture is shot through with this 'Maverickness'. Or 'Essence of Maverick'. Yo ho... Which I would define as a mixture of high and low – in anticipation of the more liberatory strands of -post-moderism. (They do exist, honest...) Ives 'called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the old.' So I'm stretching a point – but it's a quote that popped into my head. (Interested – George Canning, English politician way back when– go here, brethren - )
So. Charles Ives... is this the real fountainhead? Someone who started to break all the old rules of classical music and allowed in the sprawling, brawling noises of the society he lived in – to the point where the structures are at bursting point and mutate into new ones, new ways of listening. To resolve the chaos in the music requires going to a new level of musical understanding:

'Taken as a whole, his works are incredibly coherent and focused and well-thought-out on a philosophical, religious, and psychological level. But of course, Ives' musical "order" is not the order that you typically find in traditional Western classical music. I think that it's this aspect of Ives’ work that most points to composers like John Cage or Charles Mingus, and the whole idea of jazz, as well as other forms of "process music." '
Scott Mortensen

If one can think of conventional 'European' harmony – even the extended dissonant intensities that European art music was edging into by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, finally to arrive at 'atonality' – as a sign standing for that culture of 'high art – well, when Ives goes way beyond its boundaries in his work – he lets AMERICA in and creates the foundations of an indigenous American music that echoes back from the concert hall to the church to the mountains and valleys to the streets of city and small town. And beyond. And back. Ives splashes into his pieces – ragtime, church music – hymns – pop songs of the day – brass bands - and quotes from Beethoven. And was years ahead of his time in doing so... (For a very good and short essay on Ives' anticipations and innovations see here...

Listening to Odd Nosdam – I hear similar patterns to Ives. These are the concerns of American music – to bring in the demotic, democratic voices and create structures appropriate to a freewheeling, rowdy democracy. This requires fluidity and a generosity that hears the transcendental in the streets of Manhattan or Central Park – or Oakland with a mike dangled out of a window to capture the day – Whitmanesque! Moving way beyond the conventions of art music. The joke is that Ives was finally co-opted into the concert hall – yet somehow still resists being flattened down into the 'serious' music world – I see him having more in common with Ornette Coleman, say. Read Ives' statements on music – then attempt Ornette's harmolodic theory... synchronous?
So. Take the breath:

All this requires – space. Space to let the music breathe...

'I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.' [From 'Call Me Ishmael', London, Cape, 1967, (first pub 1947) P15 – if you find a copy for under £10, let me know...]

As the great Charles Olson said... I don't think it's too fanciful to draw these links in my subjective take on Nosdam's album 'Burner' – Music such as this requires 'space' to breathe in, to exist and create new forms. If 'SPACE' is the true American sublime, I would say that this links Ives and Nosdam, high art and hip hop. And my use of the hackneyed word 'sublime' is deliberate – in it's defined meaning – there is an awesome quality to American SPACE – and there always was. We are reminded of this in the weeks after Hurrican Katrina – America had always been a dangerous place – 'Large, and without mercy.'

ON moves his constituent parts round constantly in the mix – drums come forward, recede, drop out, return, voices surge over instrumental parts and samples, then recede. Everything is always on the move... Which gives a dizzying sense of SPACE... in the way that Ives marshals his musical forces back and forth – think 'Three Places in New England' – the second movement 'In Putnam's Camp' -

'According to Ives’ own notes on this movement, he meant to conjure musically the experience of a young boy as he imagines the comings and goings of the Revolutionary Army near Redding. In this movement we seem to hear the sounds of two marching bands playing different tunes at the same time. Listen for "Yankee Doodle," "Bringing in the Sheaves," and Sousa’s "Semper Fidelis." ' (From here...).

(So this gets weirder – surfing to check an Ives reference - about the spatial elements in Charles Ives - I found this – and you can download and re-mix the bugger... I love the Internet! What a beautiful connection between Ives and now... synchronicity... remixicity... )

So here's the quote referred to in the above interruption -

'Charles Ives's "Unanswered Question" of 1906 was the first piece of the 20th Century using spatial separation as a major element of the composition. '

That 'spatial separation.' Using 'space' in the more immediately localised sense, instruments backstage, onstage and scattered round the concert hall – in the service of the mystical space of the 'Unanswered Question.'. In other works he evokes the sound of marching bands moving back and forward as their sound grows fainter/louder. And his use of polytonality – writing parts in different keys – expands the sonic space further, as the lines develop their own momentum, way beyond conventional harmonic areas. So I hear some kind of continuum at work here – Ives moving back and forward in the mix of American music – sometimes faintly heard, sometimes loud and clear. Space...

Let's try and tie this up... 'Burner' is, in Odd's own words, "an emotional roller coaster ride, meant to be experienced like a film." This wide-screen ambition in music is what unites – for me, have to get the academic rigidity of subjective opinional terminology right, old boy – Nosdam and Charles Ives. In the wildness and beauty of the SPACE of the American Sublime... From the 'Unanswered Question' to 'Untitled One.'

So. Riding out on a pithy sentence – or two...

Cruising the net late at night I found this latest from Odd Nosdam. Or did it find me? As the great metaphysician Fats Waller once said: 'One never knows, do one?'

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