“out of focus”

3 Jun

auxiliary
a monthly music column

Albums Acquired
ZOL! BLK JKS

Music Listened To
21, Adele
Away From Us, Record Low
Burn It Down, Sims
Ítrekun + Haglél, a new song, Mugison 
King of Limbs, Radiohead
Las Meridanzas, Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band
Magic, Sean Rowe
Salon des Amateurs
, Hauschka

Texas Radio Drift, James Reeves
Useless Creatures, Andrew Bird
ZOL! BLK JKS

Artists Seen
KLANG!!! @ The Hideout

:: :: ::

We love when the world is obscured. Towns swallowed in fog. Windows clouded in rain and smearing lights into golden dollops that run like pancake batter. On the train one morning, we sat, hunched. Heavy with rain. What we could see through the six-inch clearing at the bottom of the window was shrouded in gray. “You Woke Me Up!” was a sentiment we all shared, and I found myself wanting to be able to reach over, grab an auxiliary cable, and plug it into the train’s speaker system. Useless Creatures, in terms of genre, might be closer to classical than anything—it’s mostly violin—but this isn’t music for the orchestra hall. In fact, a train car felt right, this song in particular, with its gentle, rising progression, somber chords, and echoing portamenti, it’s pace not a trudge, but invariably steady, much like the speed at which we approached our destination.

Downtown, in the rain, and with the foreignness of “Carrion Suite” in my ears, could’ve been Ho Chi Minh. Maybe the song’s Eastern modes reminded me of “Shore Leave,” with those sparse Vietnamese plinks over Tom Waits’ minor blues. Or maybe the slender channels of cars that seemed to float amidst the Gaussian lights looked like what I imagine cities in Asia to be: busy but surreal. When it got to what I’d call the second movement, every time the doors opened it was as if Bird’s bouncing spiccato was the sound of the rain drops on the platform. Something about this music, especially in Chicago, where history is never far in the rearview, is of another age. Even though—like everything—it couldn’t have existed at any other time.

:: :: ::

It’s no surprise that music suspends belief, transports us back in time and across the Pacific Plate, but it is surprising when you realize how easily it does so. As if we’re so anxious to oblige it. A snippet of a folk tune sends us to the hills of Tennessee, the sun hot on our backs, wooden stools under us, whiskey in our hands. Is it possible that some music is powerful enough that not just generic belief but an entire belief system could be suspended? I was walking home on a warm evening, heading west on North Avenue listening to the last track on Las Meridanzas, when I decided it is.

For 3 minutes and 40 seconds, Alex Dupree lifts me off my feet. One question emerges, though I’ve never felt it before, with this song or any other: Do I believe in heaven? When was the last time I even asked myself? Is what I call faith anything more than a ruse I’m ever the victim of? The street is soil. A canopy overhead. Thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum the incessant pounding beneath the ethereal hum, the guitar hitting the same few notes over and over and over step step step step step step thrum thrum thrum thrum thrum. Behind the liquor store there is a light / … neon red, she peered outside / all manner of things let go / Hold on, behind the lake frozen in snow / it’s the same giving life / the same giving light / black ice shinin’ / … into the pool of something that is unknown / Now life, not death but movement / oh God, you have not abandoned us / to the mouth of the Earth / we lay there still / come ice, come fire / we will grow until / you plant in our hearts / with rain, with high noon / with frost, with vines / with deep roots / Until all is overgrown.

Do I believe in heaven? The question is somehow in the song, even though it isn’t. Do I believe in any goodness, then, or now, or ever before? Do I believe in the replanting of Eden? That a broken world could be overthrown with new vines? Do I at least believe that life follows death? For a while, a few minutes, it doesn’t matter.

:: :: ::

The Record Low makes music that lets your eyes go out of focus. I’ve tried to explain it before, what I can make my eyes do—I’m convinced most people can too—but in part I don’t understand it myself. Do they drift apart, or move closer together? Is there any discernible physical change at all? How am I controlling it? It works best looking at lights. Street lights. Christmas lights. You can see them blur and splay out, five or six fuzzy planets static in long orbitals.

There’s this tunnel in Chicago, connecting the Blue Line to the Red Line, and if you’re down there, and stare straight ahead, and unfocus your eyes like this, it’s as if it goes on forever. And in that eternity, what should be playing is The Record Low. Tellingly, after some time, their music becomes hard to focus on as well, becomes the score to a film that’s on somewhere behind us. It’s beautiful, but it’s also subdued and spacey and almost more a void than something to fill it. The band couldn’t be more different live. The deafening shrieks and grunts of guitar effects were like watching mutilation on the big screen. You wanted to unfocus everything, get something into the periphery. There was too much sound, and it strained at your ears like a wild animal tearing through a fence. We only lasted a few songs. That was before I’d heard Away From Us, before “Immediate Family” became one of my favorite songs of last year, and made me often wonder how the same music could be presented so differently.

The inverse was true for Hauschka, who, with Samuli Kosminen—drummer for Icelandic electronic outfit múm—offered something of a magic show at Schuba’s not long ago. With a ‘prepared’ piano—bottle caps, paper clips, cloth, Tic Tacs, felt, foil, duct tape, cellophane, marbles, necklaces, all placed inside, on or between the piano’s strings—the sonic landscape was that of a 12-piece band, not a duo, and with sincerity, charm, and a gift at storytelling, Hauschka put on a show that was much more than a concert. At one point, in preparation for a song, he removed his preparations, and it was very similar to watching a magician pull impossibly large things out of a hat. The odd and innumerable objects just kept coming. It might’ve been the best part of the show. That, or when he subsequently poured an entire bag of ping-pong balls into the piano for a lively, totally random, visually engaging, and aptly named tune.

These sorts of theatrics are what’s missing on Salon des Amateurs. Its compositions are simply flat in comparison. I wonder if they sound that way to someone who hasn’t seen him live. It’s possible they don’t. But to me, after such a carnival of music, antics, and storytelling, the album is like a half-filled helium balloon. Hauschka is someone to appreciate in person.

:: :: ::

Are you ready for this year’s song of the summer? I hope so. I also hope you don’t care too much about novelty, because this, technically, was last summer’s song, released as the title track of BLK JKS’ 5-song EP ZOL! in June 2010. The song [which you can listen to right here] does one thing: it makes you feel like your cutting through the throngs outside the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, avoiding the hooligans from Manchester and the vomit that patterns the pavement in splotches, in the summer heat, excited for what the rest of the world calls futbol, vuvuzelas blaring like wild animals. And it’s a testament to the fanfare and energy of the track that this scene is conjured without the following: “This new five-song ZOL! EP arrives around the same time of the World Cup’s arrival in the band’s Johannesburg hometown. … We’re told the celebratory, upbeat, sunny “ZOL!” is a song about soccer.”

That’s Brandon Stosuy of Stereogum reporting. BLK JKS apparently played at the opening celebration of the World Cup, sharing the stage in Soweto with Alicia Keys, Tinariwen, and the Black Eyed Peas. Listening to “ZOL!,” it’s clear that once again, globalization has wrought all sorts of musical experimentation. Here that looks like a young South African four-piece using a reggaeton backbeat behind its Afrikaans choruses. Fortunately, it’s not an incongruous blend; in fact, it’s the slickest track from them yet. Put this on, and you want to move. It’s infused with a sport-like energy and even though it’s got a beat, your body almost wants to run more than dance. It’s communal as well, with its choral call-and-response, and I’d wager there’s no one who hears this who doesn’t want to turn back time, buy a couple plane tickets—or join the hooligans in their rampage gratis—and head to the tip of the African continent, just for a few days where your body is somehow part of the hot soil and the churning crowds and the players out on the field, in some life-giving and mystical moment of unity.

:: :: ::

fin

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