Friday, February 3, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 2/3/12 - A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Bare Wires

My main reason for pricking up the ears over the self-titled debut from A Winged Victory for the Sullen was specifically due to the participation of Adam Wiltzie, he who comprises one half of Austin, TX drone kingpins Stars of the Lid. I’ve been a fan of that duo for a long while now, with my appreciation spreading to previous Wiltzie “side-projects” like The Dead Texan and Windsor for the Derby. The other member of AWVftS is Dustin O’Halloran, and while I knew a little about Devics, the Los Angeles indie band where he works with vocalist Sara Lov, I was frankly clueless to the man’s solo output as pianist and film composer. Checking out O’Halloran’s first two plainly (you might even say Eno-esquely) titled records, 2004’s PIANO SOLOS and 2006’s PIANO SOLOS VOL. 2, I was pleasantly struck by the crisp, calm nature of his style, which fits snuggly into the genre of Classical, Modern. And yeah, that’s an awfully big corral of sometimes restless cats, so please let me elaborate; Dustin O’Halloran’s music possesses the same sort of quiet, relaxed intensity that’s absolutely perfect for rustic, backstreet antiquarian bookshops. Picture this, won’t you? While browsing the Fiction section’s pricey but pristine first edition hard-covers of Borges, Barth and Barthelme (aka the three Bs), the music’s unobtrusive assertiveness first catches the ear. Briefly the thought tangles on the tongue tip to ask from whence the music derives, but the college-aged counter clerk appears completely engrossed in a tattered copy of AGAINST INTERPRETATION and likely doesn’t want to be bothered. Shades of Arvo Pärt, Olivier Messiaen, and even Morton Feldman become briefly explicit, but the music swirling about the shelves of major volumes obviously doesn’t belong to the oeuvre of any of those heavyweight names.  And yet it’s exactly that kind of sound, i.e. just right for taking the highly caffeinated, sleep-deprived edge off an extremely sunlit morning; it’s relaxing, yet possessive of a strong backbone. And that’s just O’Halloran’s first two records. I haven’t even heard all of his most recent, highly touted stuff (though 2010’s solo live VORLEBEN is after a half dozen listens proving to be a true killer), mainly because I’m sorta stuck on this A Winged Victory for the Sullen collab. Frankly, it’s proving a disc as strong as its name is wordy (which perhaps influenced my bookshop scenario up above, heh). My first impression upon sitting down with this record (and while not exclusively a “sit-down” [or “lie-down”] LP, I can’t imagine it appropriately connecting with non-stationary listeners without the aid of headphones) was that without hints I’d likely never guessed Wiltzie’s involvement. And yet the tangible difference in sound doesn’t register as disconnected from the general evolution of Stars of the Lid’s impressive dronescapes, mainly because SotL’s numerous flights of extendedness, while occasionally abrasive and agitated, were more often inclined toward spacious, relaxing and borderline ethereal motifs. Like the best of Stars of the Lid (and I should mention that Brian McBride is an equal part of that duo’s considerable success), A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN’s seven pieces lend themselves quite easily to the possibility of soundtracking the bold non-linearity of experimental film. But where movies employing SotL would ideally be projected onto a large wall during a hip, smoky gathering in some saucy boho’s loft, AWVftS feels far more suited for exhibition in a smart museum’s program of new film or even in the hallowed halls of academe. Indeed, during that first listen my thoughts did occasionally turn to Eno’s MUSIC FOR FILMS, a comparison still worthy of mention with the big caveat that while AWVftS’s music is pointed in the approximate direction of the ambient zone it never really gets there. Instead, it generally examines an appealing three-way split between gestures of ambient motion, the unique depth of feeling that’s sometimes achieved by chamber classical, and a string section driven post-rock sensibility that’s loosely related to groups like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And this is cool since A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the nature of their moniker aside, smartly avoids repeating the melancholic bombast of those two bands. Again, the post-classical aura of O’Halloran’s piano really sets the tone here; while “We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced, For the Earth Had Circled the Sun Yet Another Year” (did I say something about wordy?) opens with a slow wash of tough string ache, by the one minute mark the piano has begun establishing that AWVftS is disinterested in reaching for emotional extremes in favor of cultivating an atmosphere of gentle, if occasionally tense and even sometimes subtly ominous beauty. But please don’t infer that fans of Sigur Rós and Godspeed won’t find AWVftS right up their alley. Anybody into the more un-rock side of post-rock should certainly queue this record up for inspection. Same goes for those into the more un-rock side of vintage Krautrock (say Cluster or Popul Vuh) or even Fripp and Eno’s EVENING STAR. ‘Tis true that my younger self would’ve surely derided A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN as so much New Age hoo-hah, but back in those days I was far more prone to making shortsighted and even inaccurate statements. Please don’t fall prey to the same mistake. Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran have crafted a fine and thoughtful debut album smartly co-released by the imprints Kranky (US) and Erased Tapes (UK). In fact, I can claim with confidence that it’s one of the best new records to hit my ear canals in all of 2011.

Gonna go uptown so I can get myself straight
Gonna go see my mama see if I got myself a date
Time is runnin’ out I’m comin’ right down to the wire
Gotta go do something to get myself higher
Lou Reed- “I’m Gonna Move Right In”

The music of Bare Wires requires a certain nonchalant swagger. And with a few exceptions, most of them from New York in the ‘70s (see above), I tend to think this blend of attitudinal rocking is best exemplified by bands hailing from the American West Coast, particularly it’s southernmost state. Yeah, if you have a jones to itch some post-Stones, post-“Search and Destroy”, post-Dolls expressions of trashy white-boy cool replete with cheap shades, cigarettes perpetually smoldering and dangling, and maybe even a scarf or denim jacket to help sell the strut, then indeed California is the place you ought to be. Some will quibble with this idea, and that’s more than alright. It’s in no way a stone tablets kind of concept. But here are three examples in favor of my thesis; The Dogs’ KBD-classic “Slash Your Face”, a big helping of mid-period Red Kross, and Dream Syndicate’s atypically silver-tongued “John Coltrane Stereo Blues”. Bare Wires are from Oakland, though they originally formed in Memphis, and the reality of this coastal commute only adds to the allure of the band’s glammy, power-popish early punk goodness (The Dogs also left Detroit for Los Angeles). Now lots of folks dismiss this particular strain of rock as the regressive stuff of posing and dilettantish small-scale rockstar-ism, but I frankly disagree; smarts in rock music shouldn’t necessarily equate to intellectualism or in lieu of that to an explicit punk-derived non-arrogance. I’ll acknowledge that stepping into this harry playground without the needed songs or chops is a recipe for disaster. With the right sound, this sort of approach harkens all the way back to the true badassery promulgated by the original R&R impulse (Berry, Lewis, Little Richard, Presley), but without it the whole endeavor will quickly become besieged with a whole lotta emptiness that inevitably leads to the catcalls of preening and poserism. That’s why to this day so many bad memories linger over ‘80s glam-metal (and to be fair, lots of those bands had okay songs, it’s just that hackneyed delivery and overzealous production sank most of them like an, um, lead balloon). But Bare Wires thankfully hang out on the unabashedly punk side of the street; on their debut, 2009’s ARTIFICIAL COLOR, they did a great freshman job of alternating a hyperactive melodic tendency with the gusto of streetwalking cheetahs with hearts full of if not napalm then some unidentified but surely harmful fluid. Nothing exceeded the three minute mark, often barely eclipsing two, and its 12 songs formed an assured and concise statement of purpose. Their second full-length effort, 2010’s SEEKING LOVE did nothing to mess with the program, though it was quickly clear that bandleader Matthew Melton was hitting his stride as a songwriter; instead of the tunes vaguely alternating between the poles of power-pop and punk, he was becoming far more adept at integrating those elements into each track. Plus, the guitars were fuller and loaded with gnawing riffing, and the rhythm section continued to be unfalteringly on the spot. Well, last year found Melton and co knocking out a 10 song 10-inch titled CHEAP PERFUME (the best kind, natch) on the South Paw label and the results besmirch the Bare Wires name not a bit. In fact, I’m ready to crown ‘em as one of the best unheralded straight-up rock units currently on the scene. And PERFUME really helps underscore the casual shrewdness behind Melton’s mode of operation. Not only has he gotten even more able at blending the power pop and the punk chug, but it’s suddenly clearer than ever that maybe Melton’s slickest trick is how he successfully grapples with the brazen and addictive insubstantiality of glam-rock’s more doofus side (think Slade or Sweet, not Bowie or T. Rex) with the everlasting depth of goodness from names like Arthur Lee, Alex Chilton, Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell. Those four names hopefully make it plain that Bare Wires are tapping into a direct rock tradition; there is nothing twisted or tweaked or ironic about them, and that’s refreshing. I also really like how this band blatantly cribs/quotes from previous songs like it ain’t no big deal (and you know what? ‘tis not). On ARTIFICIAL COLOR it was a sly variation on Devo’s “Gut Feeling”, on SEEKING LOVE it was the grand unlikelihood of The Drifter’s perennial “Under the Boardwalk”, and on CHEAP PERFUME it’s a nab from ABBEY ROAD. Which song? Not telling. Some things you just have to find out for yourself. Anybody that’s ever been blissed-out by some paunchy shop clerk’s selection of The Records’ “Starry Eyes” while flipping through titles in a dank but delicious basement wax shack shouldn’t hesitate to check out Bare Wires. And any ears equally slain by the first batch of KILLED BY DEATH volumes and Numero Group’s YELLOW PILLS: PREFILL compilation should find this band a real peanut butter and chocolate combination. Even if you “just” dig pre-crap Replacements I’d say give them a shot. It’s rare for a band of this ilk to knock out three long players of such high quality; that CHEAP PERFUME is Bare Wires’ best one yet only increases the impressiveness of their achievement.

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