Dosh – ‘Wolves and Wishes’

July 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, July 25, 2008.

Dosh
Wolves and Wishes
(Anticon/Stomp)

A record from Minneapolis instrumental savant Martin Dosh is always cause for anticipation. Over three long players for leftist Oakland hip-hop imprint Anticon – including the speckled, sonic cinematics of 2006’s The Lost Take – he has explored an array of gently experimental leanings and inflections, visiting instrumental tropes as diverse as jazz, ambience and bookish film music.

While the results have proved charming – The Lost Take’s ‘Everybody Cheer Up Song’ and ‘O Mexico’ were beauteous, masterful strokes – much of Dosh’s appeal has rested in possibility and potential. His masterful sense of arrangement and endless sonic palette were always obvious; he just hadn’t pressed all the right buttons at once. Fourth full-length Wolves and Wishes might just be that moment.

Across 10 instrumental sketches, Dosh and his master-class of collaborators weave flashes of tonal and melodic and emotive clarity into a patchwork of simmering, elusive but gradually flourishing phrases and motifs. Andrew Bird’s violins, Mike Lewis’s clarinet and saxophone, Fog front man Adam Broader’s guitars, and a particularly visceral volley of vocal hollers from one Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, each wonderfully embellish Dosh’s drums/Rhodes/piano patois.

The urgent angularities of ‘Bury the Ghost’, opaque, droning ambience of ‘First Impossible’ and ‘Food Cycles’, and the spacious piano, violin, pedal-steel and voice of ‘Kit and Pearle’ all make for highlights. The glimmering prog-pop hook of ‘Wolves’ – too – is a striking, evocative moment.

The strength here, it seems, is in the record’s underlying tension. Dosh flirts with, but never fully embraces each aesthetic and emotive departure; he explores their flourishes, but never allows them to wrestle control. It’s a brilliantly astute quality. Rather than leaving us yearning for the completion of each aesthetic gesture, Wolves and Wishes maps its own path, with Dosh weaving each transitory inflection and accent into his own new vernacular.

The part beautiful, part contemplative, part referential, part primeval – this is very much a record to be absorbed in its entirety. While its individual volumes prove intriguing, it’s only they’re filed and shelved as one proud collection that Wolves and Wishes espouses Dosh’s true, subtle mastery.

http://www.myspace.com/doshanticon

Dan Rule

Dandy Warhols – A New Orbit

July 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue, Issue #308, July 2008.

After a decade on the major label mother ship, the Dandy Warhols have manned the escape pods and launched into deep space…alone.

Assumptions can be dangerous, especially when it comes to impossibly cool, fringe-flipping musical sorts like the Dandy Warhols. Since rising from the Portland, Oregon underground with 1995’s Dandys Rule, OK?, the group’s daintily druggy take on psyche-pop has, to many, glared with pout-riddled irreverence and affectation as much as it has shone with brilliantly catchy hooks and pop artisanship.

Granted, 2004 documentary Dig! didn’t help. The widely celebrated film by young director Ondi Timoner rendered a provocative sketch of the quartet’s turbulent relationship with prolific San Francisco act the Brian Jonestown Massacre, depicting the band – and particularly charismatic front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor – as perilously conceited, hopelessly precious and willing to do anything for success.

Today’s encounter offers a very different rendition. From the moment co-founder, co-songwriter and guitarist Peter Holmstrom picks up the phone, he is a model of self-effacing charm and quietly enthusiastic conversation.

He cracks cheesy jokes; he bemoans the disorderly state of his new house; he takes friendly swipes at whatever and whoever springs to mind.

“I hold nothing against Ondi Timoner,” he announces dramatically. “She made a great movie,” he pauses, a mischievous giggle passing his lips. “But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a documentary.”

“The movie I would have made would have been much more realistic to what I feel actually happened,” he launches off again. “And it probably wouldn’t have interested anybody whatsoever!”

The picture Holmstrom paints of the Dandy Warhols – who release their interstellar-themed seventh album Earth to the Dandy Warhols this month – is one far-removed from their fashionably derisive public countenance. Indeed, if Holmstrom is anything to go by, the group’s aloofness drifts closer to self-parody than otherwise.

“I think our humour pisses off some people,” he giggles. “Australian’s are the only ones who seem to get it. In the States, we’re kind of too cool for modern music and alternative radio, but this tongue-in-cheek humour seems to be kind of too silly for the cool kids.”

“I see poor Courtney having a hard time with that sometimes, but only when he takes himself too seriously,” he sniggers, “which is often.”

Nonetheless, the Dandy Warhols’ pop legacy is a strong one. Since forming in Portland during 1994, Taylor-Taylor, Holmstrom, keyboardist Zia McCabe and drummer Brent DeBoer (who replaced original percussionist Eric Hedford) have become one of the most recognisable bands in pop-culture.

But while albums like 2000’s Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia and 2003’s Welcome to the Monkey House proved minor mainstream hits, the Dandys’ cultural visibility has come largely via television, film and advertisement licensing. Since inking a deal with major label Capitol Records for the release of second album The Dandy Warhols Come Down in 1997, the group’s popped-up, Velvet Underground-inspired sound has found its way onto television series as divergent as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Queer as Folk, Sex and the City, Veronica Mars, Six Feet Under and The O.C., not to mention films such as Good Will Hunting, The Fluffer and There’s Something About Mary and commercials too numerous to mention.

“We’re a self-sustaining unit at this point because of television and advertising,” says Holmstrom matter-of-factly. “We have our studio thanks to Vodafone, pretty much.”

It’s little surprise that the Dandys bare few qualms about licensing their songs to others. While you’d assume that such a highly visible band would be label darlings, their experience as one of the major label minions – which concluded earlier this year, when they were released from their contract with Capitol – was tumultuous to say the least.

“We’ve always had problems with every regime we’ve worked under,” says Holmstrom. “As much as we were initially offended that we got dropped, after a couple of weeks we suddenly realised, like, we’d really been trying to get off Capitol for years.”

“It was just like, ‘Woohoo, we’re free!”

Released through their new in-house label, Beat the World Records, Earth to the Dandy Warhols sees the Dandys’ – the same band that, a few years ago, you might have thought too precious to do their own dirty work – have returned to their small-scale, indie roots.

Filled with the kind of jangling guitar hooks, sun-hazed synths and frivolous vocal smarts that has become their signature, the record is classic Dandys all the way. The clunking electro-beats, synth lines and robo-vocals of ‘Mission Control’, the funked-up sass of ‘Welcome to the Third World’ and the pseudo-country swagger of ‘The Legend of the Last Outlaw Truckers’ each offer a brilliantly tangential take on the Dandys sound.

As Holmstrom explains, Earth to the Dandy Warhols’ diversity hails from its sheer breadth. “It was kind of like cleaning house in a way,” he says. “We’ve had a bunch of ideas – partial songs or complete songs – that have been floating around since the beginning, which we’ve never used for whatever reason.”

“So we just started playing those and working them out, then Courtney and I both brought in a couple of other ones… All of a sudden, we had a full record.”

But even with their first in-house release ready to float into orbit, the Dandys aren’t about to perform any moonwalks yet.

“I’ve been losing a lot of sleep over this whole label thing,” he sighs, laughing. “I really didn’t know if we could pull it off.”

“But you know what? I think we’re going to do it,” he pauses. “You got sent a copy of our record, right? So things are looking good!”

by Dan Rule

Earth to Dandy Warhols is out through Etch’n’Sketch/Inertia

Oren Ambarchi – Sonic Reducer

July 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Cyclic Defrost, Issue #19, 2008


(Photo by Daniel Mahon)

Oren Ambarchi Interview by Dan Rule.

He may be a virtual unknown in the wider Australian populace, but Oren Ambarchi cuts a truly iconic figure in the international experimental underground. Over the best part of two decades – not to mention almost 20 solo and collaborative releases – his increasingly reductive, near-alien guitar works have garnered the kind of the international attention and acclaim that most artists only dream of. Having played and swapped notes with the likes of John Zorn, Fred Frith, Ikue Mori, Mike Patton, sunn0))), Robbie Avenaim, Damo Suzuki and countless others, Ambarchi’s rich, explicitly tonal sound has developed into one of the most recognisable and utterly unique in music. But with the release of his latest two projects – the frighteningly low-end frequencies of fourth official solo album In the Pendulum’s Embrace, and the floating acoustic pop of I’ll Be the Same, his second long-player as part of Sun, a duo with Sydney producer/musician Chris Townend – Ambarchi’s aesthetic seems to be skewing in two very incongruous directions. Nonetheless, according to Australia’s most celebrated sound artist, no matter the polarity of the means, his sonic explorations inhabit a singular and strikingly simple conceptual space.

The Earth is rupturing at its seams. Opaque, tectonic frequencies rumble and growl; subterranean tones protract and oscillate, swinging ominously back and forth. You can feel them. The notion of sound long gave out to this feeling.

There is a violence to this. It enters via the ear and chest and legs and bones; it moves structure and solid matter. Floorboards shudder and reverberate; empty wooden chairs gradually vibrate and move to the right and left; a glass shifts along a tabletop, drops, smashing to the ground. Another. Searing, screaming top-end shatters what is left.

There is a beauty to this; a swelling, arcing beauty. It is buried – slow, melodic, unfolding and unravelling – immersed under frequency and noise and moving air. The room feels it.

It is a temperate Sunday night in a small, inner city Melbourne venue, and in a rare Australian performance Oren Ambarchi has the crowd transfixed, enamoured, intoxicated in sound and moving air. It is the 38-year-old’s way – he doesn’t do things by half measures.

“I’m interested in stuff that draws you all the way in, you know, even if it’s a movie or whatever,” he says days later. “I love just going to a movie and feeling like you’ve been transported somewhere and drawn into the world of the director, and just losing yourself in that world. My favourite directors and musicians have that effect on me and I kind of want to get that feeling from what I do. When I get that feeling, I know that I’m on the right track and that I’ve got something to work with.”

“That’s why I don’t really play solo that much in Australia,” he offers. “I like to make it special and do it at the right time and right place.”

Ambarchi in person – today hunched over a Malaysian meal in a tiny Melbourne restaurant – is far more accessible. He tells comfortably longwinded stories and drops hilarious anecdotes; he muses on recently becoming a father; philosophises on touring endlessly overseas. The mystique, the inscrutable abstraction, the utter immersion of his work seem a world away from his easy, relaxed manner.

“About four years ago, Stephen O’Malley from sunn0))) was DJing one of my songs – the first song on Grapes From the Estate, ‘Corkscrew’ – at a festival and the frequencies triggered the fire alarms,” he giggles. “The fire sprinkler system rained out the whole place and the fire department had to come down and evacuate everyone.”

“So the next day O’Malley called me and said, ‘Oren, we need to work together’,” he laughs again. “That’s how it all started with sunn0))).”

His take on his own music – the latest examples of which come to us in the form of stunning fourth solo album In the Pendulum’s Embrace and the wonderfully arcane pop of second Sun record I’ll Be the Same – is equally cursive. “A lot of it, in a way, is really connected to rock music, but it’s almost like stripping it to the bones of what rock music is and what I like about rock music. It’s still quite physical and it still has change, just like rock songs would, but it’s all just done in a really minimal, stripped-back way, and not many people kind of get that. I don’t really like to spell out what I do, you know.”

It’s a telling intimation. Over the course of his decade-long career as a solo recording artist, the Sydney-raised Melburnian has skirted both the most abstract of instrumental negotiations and the most reductive and seemingly simplistic of ambient musical motifs. And it’s this transcendent quality that has come to define his craft. Working chiefly with guitar and series of pitch-shifters, delays and effects, Ambarchi’s heavily tonal compositions have developed into some of the most distinctive in music, and seen him share disc and stage space with anyone from Keith Rowe, Fennesz, Martin Ng, Gunter Muller, John Zorn and aforementioned doom-smiths sunn0))) amongst countless others.

But according to Ambarchi, his art has garnered its unique sonic identity via eradication rather than arrangement as such. “A lot of it is actually the process of elimination, where I’ll start off with an improvisation and build stuff around that improvisation, and then a lot of times I’ll take away the original motif or whatever,” he explains. “It’s usually about taking stuff away and leaving the real essence. It’s just sort of about things slowly unravelling.”

Ambarchi’s interest in music started in a very different context. Growing up in Sydney during the 70s, his early life was scored by impromptu vinyl and musical happenstance. “I was obsessed with music from a really, really young age,” he recalls smilingly. “I had Beatles and Hendrix 7-inches before I could talk apparently, like, I was just way, way into it.”

“My mother was really cool and she used to just buy me these records. There’d be a Beatles song playing in a shopping mall and she’d hear me imitating it and she’d go and buy it for me,” he pauses. “She was really cool.”

His grandfather, who owned a second-hand shop in Sydney, also played an important, if not random, role in his introduction to music. “I could just go to his pawnshop after school, and take any records I wanted, and lots of strange, kind of really fortuitous things started happening,” explains Ambarchi. “I was about nine years old and I remember I took this one record home – I thought it was a Beatles record – and I put it on and it was a Yoko Ono record,” he laughs. “I didn’t even know the difference; I just thought it sounded great.”

“I also remember taking an Iron Maiden record home, The Number of the Beast, and inside was a Miles Davis record, Live-Evil. You know, someone had put the wrong record in there. And you know, that just blew my mind. Because I was so young, I was just lapping it all up. It was all music and it was all great.”

But his grandfather’s shop had other treats in store for the young Ambarchi, who had also began dabbling in the drums at 10 or 11. “He a lot of old electronic equipment, like effect pedals and reel-to-reel machines, and so I used to just take them home and play with them,” he says.

It was something of a formative revelation for the young musician. “It was just amazing having access to all this stuff, so I sort of became intensely interested in electronics from a young age. Even though I was a drummer, I would kind of make these weird, crude, musique concrete tapes and stuff at home.”

Ambarchi became increasingly involved in the Sydney jazz scene throughout his teen years, playing drums in several free jazz ensembles delving into the back catalogues of Coltrane and Davis. But it wasn’t just music that had peaked the young man’s interest. Ambarchi, who comes from a lineage of Sephardic Jews from Iraq, went back to his roots and began engaging with Jewish spirituality.

By the time he was finishing high school, he had decided to move abroad to study Jewish mysticism. “It was really my own vision,” he says. “I was really into John Coltrane and all this really ecstatic spiritual jazz through my mid to late teens, and I started to read about a lot of Jewish mysticism and stuff like that, and it all kind of made sense and all kind of came together at that point in time.”

After stints in several European countries, Ambarchi landed New York in the late-80s, where he was to study at a Rabbinical College in Brooklyn. Suffice to say, it was a something of a turning point. “New York at that point was just amazing,” he sighs. “I was living in what was a really dangerous part of Brooklyn, which now is totally cleaned up. It was around the Crown Heights area, which used to be known as Beirut because there were so many gunshots. I remember hearing gunshots and thinking they were fireworks, and I’d be sticking my head out the window going ‘What’s the celebration?’ and it was like, ‘No that’s a gun’,” he laughs.

“I could study during the day and go to gigs at night, and being the late-80s I was seeing so much amazing stuff. It really shaped who I was, as a person and as a musician. I was probably 19 or 20 and it was just a perfect time to be thrown into that world.”

The world he speaks of was one also inhabited by avant-garde jazz deity John Zorn, who took the young drummer under his wing at the turn of the 90s. Ambarchi still cites the meeting as one of the most important strands in his artistic lineage.

“You learn so much when you’re in those situations,” he says. “A lot of those gigs you’d be standing there and Zorn would look at you and go ‘Oren and whoever, go and do a duo’ and you’d just have to do it. It’d be a full house and you’d just go ‘Shit, I have to make this work’, and you would, you know. I was just learning on my feet.”

But it was another artist, legendary Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino, who really turned Ambarchi’s creative world on its head. “I was playing drums and seeing a lot of amazing music and seeing a lot of drummers that I really admired,” he recounts. “But one night at the old Knitting Factory in Houston Street I saw Keiji play, and I had no idea who he was, but it just completely blew me away. It was like this big epiphany, because I think after seeing so many great New York musicians, I was seeing someone who didn’t really have a technique. He wasn’t technical at all, but he had so much personality – the personality was so strong – that I just thought to myself, ‘I want to do this! I can do this!’”

“The first thing I did when I got home to Australia was buy myself a guitar and book a gig. I got a drummer and he thought was crazy, and everyone thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “But from that point on I always played guitar.”

His early noise-based guitar experiments such as Phlegm, a duo with fellow Sydneysider Robbie Avenaim – with whom Ambarchi went onto found the long running What is Music? Festival – seem a world away from the whirring, subterranean tones and protractedly melodic overtures of latest solo long-player In the Pendulum’s Embrace. Over three extended tracks, the album navigates some of Ambarchi’s deepest sonics and frequencies to date. Utilising whispers of strings, glass harmonica, bells, piano, percussion, and, of course, his richly tonal guitar sound, he minimises his already economical compositional structures to reach a languidly narcotic and introspective extreme.

The somnolent guitar motif, subtly snaking percussion and stunning piano intonations of 18-minute opener ‘Fever, a Warm Poison’ sets the precedent, only to be joined by the loose melodic clusters and gaunt, arcing strings of ‘Inamorata’. Final track ‘Trailing Moss in Mystic Glow’ only adds to the album’s considerable effect, pitching stunning acoustic guitar infections and ghostly, abstracted vocal fragments against an underlay or shuddering drones. While darker than it’s predecessors – the abrasive, fragmentary electronics of 1999’s Insulation, the delicate, lowercase textures of 2001’s Suspension, and 2004’s wondrously melodic Grapes from the Estate – Pendulum proves equally, if not more, unusually visceral and emotive; its ideas further focused, reduced and rationalised.

Ambarchi certainly understands Pendulum – despite its differences – as part of a lineage. “Suspension was when I first started using melodic things,” he says. “It was the first time I wasn’t afraid to use melodics, and Grapes was really an extension of that, but I brought in other instruments. I kind of think that In the Pendulum’s Embrace is just a continuation of Grapes in a way. I try not think too much when I do stuff – I try and be a bit more intuitive about it – but I guess I have my signature sound that I work with.”

“I don’t know, I hate looking at something too much after the fact, but maybe this one is a little bit darker, which might be the result of me working with sunn0))). The tones are definitely lower than usual. I just love bass frequencies and I really love somehow juggling really powerful pure tones with really fragile acoustic stuff, you know, somehow making them work together, which is actually really hard.”

He has a point. While the end result is perhaps his most concurrent yet, the process behind Pendulum was far less harmonious. “I didn’t realise until I was mastering just how difficult it was to balance those pure tones with the acoustics. This record was mastered three or four times and a few people just gave up. Chris Townend gave up on it because he knew what I was trying to do and he couldn’t quite get the balance. If you put in too much bass then you’d lose all the sparkly acoustic stuff, but then if you went too far with the acoustic stuff it would sound too, well, not new age, but you know,” he laughs. “I just wanted to have this balance of really super-powerful, wall-shaking frequencies with totally fragile stuff that can just fall apart. I’m really into that coexistence.”

“It’s funny because a lot of the records sound like what they are – very relaxed and very slow-moving – but a lot of the conditions in which the records were made were actually quite the opposite,” he continues. “Like, often I’ll only have the budget to go into the studio for a day or two and I’ll be manically trying to get all this stuff done really quickly. And it’s kind of this weird juxtaposition of really stressful working methods in recording studios, but the music sounding really relaxed and slow-moving.”

On several plains, Ambarchi’s work with Chris Townend as Sun couldn’t be further removed from his solo explorations. Existing in the realms of breezy, arcane pop, both their 2004 self-titled debut and late 2007’s I’ll Be the Same (through Sydney label Preservation) represent a huge dynamic shift, with the pair merging lilting acoustic guitars with curiously pitched and layered falsetto vocals and crisp, percussion scored rhythms.

Suffice to say, the project surprised Ambarchi as much as it did the rest of the experimental community. “We didn’t have anywhere to release it,” he laughs of the debut release. “I don’t even know if we were really even thinking of releasing it, and then Andrew Khedoori from Preservation was just like, ‘Let me put it out, I’ll start a label’, you know. So it was just like, ‘Okay, this seems a fun thing to do’. It was almost like a challenge to see if Chris and I could actually make really light kind of pop music, you know, the opposite of what we were doing at that point in every other project.”

“It was quite a difficult thing to do in the beginning; to put ourselves in that head space. And a lot of things that came out were like ‘Oh my god, this is really bad’. Chris was like, ‘I don’t know about this’, but then we just went with it.”

It’s a good thing, for I’ll Be the Same is something of a watershed for the pair. Rippling with the entwined guitars of ‘Mosquito’, genuinely affecting melodies of ‘Help Yerself’ and blues-hued inflections of ‘Soul Pusha’ the record proves a stunning inclusion to the Ambarchi catalogue. And despite its divergence from his solo work, he sees it as innately linked.

“I think the two are really connected for sure,” he says. “When I was doing Grapes, the Sun project really made me realise that, hey, I’m a drummer and there’s drums here and there’s keyboards here and why not play them? Up until that point, it was like all guitar, blah, blah, blah. But after that point it was just, well, making music with whatever’s at hand. If it suits it, try it. That was definitely from working with Chris in Sun.”

If we’re to take the swathes of attention and respect on the part of the international experimental community as a guide, then he’s navigating the right course. Indeed, although based in Melbourne, realistically Ambarchi’s career is situated in the more extensive avant-garde communities of the northern hemisphere. Having partaken in six separate overseas tours in 2007 – not to mention a trip to Europe already this year – Ambarchi’s life is well and truly split. “It’s a strange situation,” he sighs, leaning back in his chair. “I had this weird thing a couple of years ago when I realised I was making all my money overseas spending all this time over there, but paying all my bills in Australia,” he laughs. “It kind of became quite frustrating.”

“Relocating always crosses my mind, but then I kind of think, ‘Oh, maybe I won’t get any work because the exotic, Australian thing will wear off’,” he laughs again. “And I actually really like making music in Australia and recording here and being in my own little environment. But I’m pretty spoilt, you know, being able to tour and see the world all the time too. I don’t know what I’d do without that.”

But when it comes down to it, there’s only one thing that really drives Ambarchi. It’s an essence, a feeling, a reductive sense of clarity, and it finds itself at the heart of his music

“Doing something really personal, you know, that’s the most important thing to me,” he offers, gazing intently out the restaurant window. “It doesn’t matter what it is, you know, all the people who I love – songwriters, instrumentalists, whatever – I love the fact that I can recognise and relate to something specific in their work. Ultimately, that’s what I had in mind when I started with guitar. I was just fortunate that I already had experience as a musician playing drums, which meant I could kind of look at it intellectually, but I didn’t actually know anything about what I was actually doing on my instrument.”

”The most depressing thing is to walk into a guitar shop and listen to what people are doing in there,” he laughs disbelievingly. “It’s shocking!”

“All I knew is that I didn’t want to do that. I’ve never been interested in learning scales or chords, because there are a million people doing that already,” he pauses, smiling. “We don’t need another one, you know.”

In the Pendulum’s Embrace is available from Touch/Southern Lord/Stomp. I’ll Be the Same is available from Preservation.

The Polyphonic Spree – You’re all individuals

July 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, July 25, 2008.

The Polyphonic Spree are neither a cult nor a novelty act. Dan Rule reports.

Nobody expected it to last. Wrangling 20-plus people into the one band was a dubious proposition at best. Creating some semblance of cohesive music from such a throng, it seemed, was even more improbable.

But for Tim Delaughter – the founder, chief songwriter and vocalist for 24-piece symphonic rock rabble the Polyphonic Spree – the idea was impossible to ignore.

“I didn’t even have a group in mind,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Dallas, Texas, on the eve of the group’s Australian tour. “It was just an experiment, like, this idea of mixing symphonic instruments with rock instruments and instead of having one person singing, having 10 people singing as one. Like, nobody had done that before.

“It was completely scoffed at from the beginning. No one supported it and it was really difficult to get gigs; I had friends and family telling me that it was an impossible idea. But before I knew it, the experiment turned into reality and the group became something much bigger than I had ever even thought about.”

Forming out of the ashes of Delaughter’s previous group, Tripping Daisy, which disbanded in 1999 after the drug-related death of guitarist Wes Berggren, the Polyphonic Spree have become one of the international music scene’s most recognisable groups.

Indeed, while their music has taken the form of stunningly layered, gospel-inflected rock – beautifully articulated on 2003 debut The Beginning Stages of …, 2004’s Together We’re Heavy and last year’s politically poignant The Fragile Army – it has been their flowing coloured robes (or more recently, all-black military fatigues) and cult-like stage presence that garnered much of the attention.

If the band’s collective image has been a source of continual curiosity, it has also proven something of a distraction. Many have taken the Polyphonic Spree as a novelty, which, according to Delaughter, couldn’t be further from reality.

“There’s so much care and thought that goes into what we do creatively, musically and lyrically,” he says. “I think a lot of people are quite reductive about what we do.

“I think we’re as urgent as any rock band. It’s just that we’re not part of the formulated musical environment – we’re our own thing – and when you do something like that it can be difficult all the way around. It’s just sad that sometimes people don’t take us seriously because we don’t fit into a certain bracket.”

For Delaughter, there’s a quality – a magic, even – to the Polyphonic Spree that rises beyond any such concerns.

“Doing the Polyphonic Spree seemed like a cool idea but once I actually got human beings involved, then it turned into something beautiful that I’d never imagined,” he says. “It became like this happening where we’d get together and the spirit that would transcend the mere creation of the music.

“I don’t know if it’s a ritual or just the addiction of the personalities that are in the group but it’s pretty phenomenal how well this many people get along.”

Good Buddha – Flights of fancy

July 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published:  Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, July 18, 2008.

Good Buddha go beyond the normal confines of hip-hop. By Dan Rule.

ALEX YOUNG has a deep respect, it seems, for what has preceded him. The man better known as MC Xela – the chief lyrical force behind Sydney’s genre-bending hip-hop ensemble Good Buddha – launches into joyous ramblings at the slightest mention of an early influence.

“I’ll never deny any of my musical heritage, man,” he says. “I mean, I love AC/DC, I love James Brown, I love Bob Marley.” He pauses, taking a quick breath.

“I love the psychedelic stuff, I love Jimi Hendrix … Man, you can just always go back and back in music.”

It’s not necessarily what you would expect from a rapper, but Young and his Good Buddha cohorts are hardly your average hip-hop crew. From the funk-flecked breaks of their 2001 debut, Skillathon, to its soul-seared 2004 follow-up Futurhistrix, the group’s aesthetic has echoed with the unerring flavours of epochs and parties past.

That’s not to suggest the six-strong collective – who next week launch their third album, Hit The Sky Running, as part of their national tour – are out to rehash former musical glories. Far from it.

Young says the crew’s creative compass rests in revision rather than retrospection. “All things considered, I never want to write music that is deliberately backward-looking,” he says.

“I think we write modern music, but withx a nod to the past in terms of the musicianship and collaboration and dynamics. We were all brought up on hip-hop to an extent, but I think the essence of our musicianship comes from learning to play the guitar, you know.”

Along with fellow innovators the Herd, True Live and, more recently, Illzilla, Good Buddha has set the precedent for live, band-based hip-hop on the Australian scene. Their sprawling live line-up – complete with two DJs, drums, percussion, guitars, bass and keyboards – has driven their reputation as one of the tightest local groups, hip-hop or otherwise, around.

For Young, playing live provides something the traditional DJ and MC archetype can never capture. “I mean, hip-hop is so great,” he says. “It’s so funky and the sound is incredible and the textures and stuff are great, but it’s that dynamic songwriting that’s often lacking in the modern, charting stuff.

“It’s usually just one groove and maybe a few pullouts and it’s all based on the vocals. We want to explore what you can do with the band; you know, how far you can push that.”

Recorded over an intensive two weeks at Byron Bay’s Rocking Horse Studios, Hit The Sky Running fits the live bill. Pulsing with razor-sharp rhymes, soaring vocals and kinetic, funk and soul-scored instrumentals, it pushes hip-hop to its most organic and fluid ends.

“We’ve always sort of fallen between the cracks in Australian hip-hop,” Young says. “On the one side, the real Aussie hip-hop heads can’t dig it because it’s not straight boom-bap with two mics and an MPC. But on the other side, the people who really dig live music think it’s a bit rappy,” he laughs.

“But I think with this record we’ve kind of bridged it a bit more, without trying to really be anything but ourselves.”

“It just feels like all the loose strands, all the things that we’d touched on in the past are finally starting to come together.” He pauses. “It really started to cook, you know.

Canon Blue – ‘Colonies’

July 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, July 17, 2008.

Canon Blue
Colonies
(Sensory Projects/Inertia)

Colonies is very much a record of our time. It is the first from Nashville songwriter, singer and bedroom producer Daniel James – aka Canon Blue – and it engenders the wonderful dichotomies of the contemporary cultural and technological epoch.

Echoing with both acoustics and electronics, folk-based song-structure and software-aided abstraction, this is a record of intimate scale and vast sonic scope; of antiquated instruments and shiny new laptops. Over 11 plaintive tracks (the Australian edition comes with four extra cuts from a previous EP) James seamlessly merges hooky, minor-key folk-pop with subtly complex and layered electronic arrangements – his soft-focus, high-register vocal inflection a stunning constant throughout.

There are several highlights, each riddle with James’ non-linear lyrical meanderings. “Nothin’ ever feels right when you got a knife in the back of your head,” he croons on the anthemic ‘Odds and Ends’. But you get the feeling that James’ song-craft has yet to reach its full potential at a bare-bones level. The melodies and motifs – composed entirely on his grandmother’s upright piano, apparently written at a time of great tragedy – are strong, but perhaps a little less than memorable than you’d hope.

It’s the arrangements that really give this record its strength. The stuttering beats, twinkling piano and angelic, Thom Yorke-esque falsetto of opener ‘Tree House’, the sticky beats and twittering rhythmic underlays of ‘Mother Tongue’, and the shambolic Modest Mouse-isms of the rambling ‘Battle Hymn’ each make for fine moments.

The frill-less sturdiness of James’ song writing vision aside, what makes Colonies so effective is its constant eschewal of mode and palette. Folkie meanderings are swallowed into swathes of textural ambience; plonking piano keys are lost to storms of white noise; densely layered arrangement splay out into spacious space-pop.

It is a record lost in the abstraction between the intimate and the endless – the organic and the synthesised – and as such, it feels a vital and uniquely contemporary debut.

Dan Rule

Stephanie McKay – ‘Tell it Like it is’

July 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, July 16, 2008.

Stephanie McKay
Tell it Like it is
(Muthas of Invention/Inertia)

Bronx funkstress Stephanie McKay has been lurking around the neo-soul and hip-hop communities for years now, popping up for impromptu guest slots and plying her prodigious vocal smarts to cuts for a rollcall of the scene’s finest. Having once worked as a guitarist for Kelis, she has worked extensively with Brooklyn Funk Essentials, the RH Ractor and recorded sessions for everyone from Talib Kweli and Mos Def to Tricky and Amp Fiddler.

Her second solo album Tell it Like it is is a relatively straightforward affair. McKay drops soaring, attitude-laden, pitch-perfect verses over stunningly produced soul, funk and break-beat.

Cuts like the wrangling 70s funk of opener and title track ‘Tell it Like it is’, the shimmering Bronx reminiscence of ‘Jackson Avenue’, the swooning, break-beat-strewn swagger of ‘Oh Yeah’ and the raw, organic soul of ‘Say What You Feel’ (expertly produced by Sydney fella Katalyst) glow with rare kinetics, while the sexed-up groove of ‘Kinky’ and bounce-heavy beak of ‘Fiya’ add another head-nodding intonation. Where she falls down is her attempts at balladry. While you get the feeling the pop world would love them, ‘This Letter’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ and Willy Mason cover ‘Oxygen’ come across as overly earnest and all too palpable.

There’s nothing genre twisting or particularly groundbreaking here, but McKay makes up for it with sheer verve and street-level posture. Even if you’re not a fan of soul and its derivatives, it’s hard not to appreciate the nuance and polish of her product. Her voice is stupidly good.

The NYC vernacular has been dominated by chest-puffed male MCs for so long, it’s just refreshing to hear some street-level stories and accounts from a female perspective.

Dan Rule

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