Friday, September 9, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 9/9/11 - Ducktails and Dexter Gordon

The last time I checked in with Ducktails, they were something distinctly other than a pop proposition. Essentially a New Jersey-based solo project for Mike Mondanile (also of the band Real Estate), Ducktails were appealingly very much about low-tech soundscapes of what I like to call repeato-delirium; the sort of cyclical, non-retro, murky, muddy psychedelic expanse that in my estimation is at least partially the lovely detritus from the big gulping gawp of Animal Collective’s extensive discography. Amongst numerous others, names like Sun Araw, Predator Vision and Oneohtrix Point Never are part of a considerable musical discourse on the continual evolution of psychedelic affairs, and it seemed that Ducktails were very much involved in this fascinating conversation. Well, part of it they certainly were, and still are in fact, but with the release of DUCKTAILS III: ARCADE DYNAMICS, they have fallen into the long-established tradition of bands/groups/acts/projects starting out in quite experimental/avant/progressive environs and then becoming more accessible with the passage of time. I’d simply say that Ducktails have “gone pop” but for many that has the ring of “selling out”, and that’s not what Ducktails has attempted at all. Mondanile’s work in Real Estate made it immediately clear that he was cognizant with the great pop whatsis, and if ARCADE DYNAMICS is a curve ball hurled in the direction of wider acceptance, it’s a very welcome one; the sound of this brand new long player, Ducktails’ first for the fine Woodsist label, is guitar-pop in an unpolished, attractively low-key style. Upon first listen I was quite taken with its small-scale, almost bedroom aura, something not at all far from the current sound of Kurt Vile and the Violators for one example, but it also reminded me of the more instrumental wing of the K Records love-rock scene, though Ducktails eschews even a hint of twee in favor of a post-post-Velvets East Coast sensibility that’s not at all far from Hoboken (think Feelies and their various spin-offs and Yo La Tengo, natch). But the gist with ARCADE DYNAMICS is far less about chops (and post-Velvets bands are almost always about chops to some extent) and very much about mood (which is maybe why they inspired me to consider the K Records “thing”), and that’s a nice wrinkle. Songs are often short, denying any inclination to stretch out and get into an extensive groove; establish the sound, state the point, emphasize it enough to hopefully embed it into some memory banks and then get out and on to the next one. This is remindful of a big lump of the underground pop that flourished in various forms through the ‘80s and early ‘90s (I hear a bit of low-fi shamble, some basement shoegaze and hooks that span all the way back to ‘80s Brit indie-pop) though this new twist for Ducktails doesn’t really recall any specific names. The presence of a percolating but tastefully employed drum machine does bring to mind the work of East River Pipe to a small extent and again Kurt Vile to a bigger one, but the general thrust of the proceedings has enough smart tricks up its sleeve to give ARCADE DYNAMICS a nudge to the frontline of 2009’s best records. “Little Window” is a nice little slice of acoustic folkishness that should bring at least a small smile to the face of any die-hard New Weird American, the outstanding instrumental opener “In the Swing” recalls Calvin Johnson’s strangely slept upon (and in definite need of reissue) side band Go Team, “Razor’s Edge” and “Arcade Shift” both possess enough of Ducktails’ earlier sound to make everything that surrounds them feel like a swell transition and not a clean break/fresh start, “Killin’ the Vibe” is shrewdly remindful of Collective/Panda Bear if they went purely pop, “Don’t Make Plans” would be a huge chart hit in a just world and “Hamilton Road” exudes sleepy, chiming prettiness all wrapped up with confident cool and replete with a well goosed effects pedal, the song inspiring me to contemplate if Mike Mondanile has a drawer in a huge, well polished oak chest devoted specifically to an ornate collection of scarves. I sure hope he does. But at this early point the best part of ARCADE DYNAMICS is its closer, the ten minute “Porch Projector”, a gorgeously strung out passage of moody guitar string atmospherics mingled with the sound of distant firecrackers that would make the perfect readymade soundtrack for a short film high on abstraction and rife with poetic allusions. If you film it, I will surely come and watch. If I shoot it I just might title it ANGST AND WANDERING ON THE 4TH OF JULY. It’ll be an epic ten minutes, for sure. And you just might be perfect for the part of a disillusioned cheerleader. Yes, I’m talking to you. Stop acting so modest. DUCKTAILS III: ARCADE DYNAMICS is a well executed statement of progress from a guy that will hopefully be around for a long time, and if you don’t know his work this is a fine place to get acquainted.

By 1962 Dexter Gordon was firmly back on top of things. Any doubters should proceed directly to GO, where they will hear a modern jazz master giving an exemplary lesson in the fundamentals of the classic quartet. Gordon spent the majority of the 1950s under the sway of heroin, doing a stint in prison and as a result recording very little during that decade, though what he did manage to eke out is quite worthwhile. Basically the last four years of the ‘50s were lost ones for Gordon (at least from a recording and performing standpoint), so it wouldn’t have been a bit surprising for serious jazz heads of the period to conclude that this essential bebop tenorman’s career was an unfortunate and all too familiar lost cause. GO, as his third LP for Blue Note and the fourth in his immaculate comeback (for folks often forget about 1960’s quite worthy THE RESURGENCE OF DEXTER GORDON, issued by the very fine Riverside label) surely helped to set minds at ease that his was no fleeting return to form. To put a fine point on it, Long Tall Dexter came back with skill undiminished and panache to spare, and then never again left the stage, though he did fly the American coop for the calmer shores of the Continent, where he remained and was treated like a king for fifteen years. And to be blunt, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I was forced to own only one of Gordon’s string of masterpieces, but if asked to engage in some funky hypotheticals then GO would certainly be one of the final records standing. Part of the reason concerns the confident tidiness of the record’s six tracks, which really emphasize just how much both John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins (and their many imitators) owed to Gordon’s style, which was itself a boppish rethink/update on the eternal sound of the justifiably legendary Lester “Pres” Young (with a little bit of Coleman Hawkins thrown in there too). People often cite the cornerstones of bebop as Parker, Gillespie, Powell and Davis (with Monk hanging out on the fringes), but in my opinion Davis’ most vital musical contributions are distinct from bop and he should be replaced by Gordon, whose application of the Modern Jazz template to the gruff hugeness of the tenor sax was simply a giant stride forward; his absolutely integral tenor battles with the head-scratchingly underappreciated Wardell Grey, namely “The Chase” and “The Hunt” (deeply enthused over in Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, by the way) are sort of the template for post-bop’s more boisterous crowd-pleasing moments, the Rollins/’Trane opener on TENOR MADNESS in particular. But it’s important to note that where many Comeback Kids will often adopt some contempo moves for relevance’s sake (often from musicians they themselves influenced) Gordon was having none of that. So confident was he and with so little to prove that GO sounds like it could’ve been recorded five or six years earlier in a one-off date for Prestige, and compares quite well to his ‘’55 date for Bethlehem DADDY PLAYS THE HORN. Throwback? No, for the jazz mainstream hadn’t advanced all that much, modal playing being the exception not the norm and free jazz still in its infancy. And the record is still dripping with warmth and verve almost fifty years later. Gordon was an unimpeachable, dyed-in-the-wool bopper all the way; the chutzpah of his “Shave and a Haircut” ending to GO’s “Second Balcony Jump” made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in smoothing over the idiosyncrasies that were part and parcel of the bop scene that spawned him. Some callow hepcats might’ve accused him of being out of date, but that’s utter nonsense; he was in effect a stately reminder that the ideas of Modern Jazz were far from exhausted and were still at the beck and call of this saxophone titan. The second reason that GO springs to the head of the class in Gordon’s mighty discography concerns, as all jazz records do, the quality of the full band. The sound of this quartet was so seamless that Blue Note recorded it twice back to back (A SWINGIN’ AFFAIR directly followed this one), and that was frankly a rare occurrence for the label. In addition to Gordon’s leadership the group features pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins. The record begins with an up-tempo Gordon original “Cheese Cake” and is followed by five standards (and just the right amount of balladry) with the familiarity of the tunes and the talent of the players building up the rich atmosphere of a seasoned live band. Dex is clearly in charge, but Clark is positioned as a perfectly ripe second banana; I’ve listened to all nine of his records as a leader and nearly everything he recorded as a sideman and I’ve yet to hear him lay a single note wrong. His premature death in ’63 was a real loss since he excelled at every aspect of jazz piano. His solos on GO are just splendid and the very sound of his playing is pure life-affirming beauty. Right from the start Higgins and the quite underrated Warren fuse together into a truly captivating rhythmic machine, with the pair managing the tricky stop start dynamics of “Cheese Cake” with expert ease, an endeavor that lesser musicians could easily fumble. Warren is noted as a non-soloing bassist and while that might disappoint some, his disinterest in the spotlight and preference for accompaniment when combined with Higgins’ general lack of solo space really promotes GO as a grand dialogue between Gordon and Clark. Each jazz group marked with the distinction of greatness is a unique study in the possibilities of democracy, and the collective sensibility established here is a superlative example of advanced group interplay; two in the front, two in the back, everybody together. The relaxed, knowing take of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” might be my overall favorite track, the sound reminding me very much of Rollins’ ON IMPULSE! LP from three years later (same instrumentation, a heavy reliance on standard material). But the whole of GO is an essentially flawless excursion into the vast creative arsenal of Dexter Gordon. Getting familiar with any of his Blue Note recordings is a very intelligent move; missing out on GO would be a big mistake.

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