Tulsa’s finest totally unclassifiable wunderkinds Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are back for their 26th album, Worker. Taking a break from longform work after several years of work on The Race Riot Suite, JFJO are delving into their indie-rock and hip-hop influences. The ever-evolving, piano-led trio spends the bulk of Worker writing short songs full of grinding noises, synth blasts, abrupt shifts, and funky breakdowns.
“Appropriation Song” seems to be self-aware in its pilfering of noises, melodies and rhythms from other genres. “Better Living Through Competitive Spirituality” uses old-school analog synths to create one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long time. It’s got jazzy influences, but it’s essentially a post-rock song. Furthermore, it could be the backing track to some really impressive alt hip-hop; it would be incredible if they got some rappers to create some remixes on this track in particular. “Bounce” could also work brilliantly for a hip-hop remix, as it already has the rhythmic tensions present in great hip-hop.
JFJO is a fascinating band: 20 years into their run, they’re putting out work that’s just as challenging (if not more) than their early or mid-period work. They may not have much of the “jazz” from their name left in their sound, but they do have one trait of great jazz musicians: they’re getting better with age. Worker is a challenging, engaging, rewarding listen that will please fans of experimental, adventurous post-rock. The album drops tomorrow, October 14.
The Widest Smiling Faces‘ Sin Waves is also difficult to describe, but in a completely different way from JFJO. Sin Waves is a 33-track album of dreamy, woozy, reverb-heavy, gentle tracks. Only 6 of them break one minute, though; TWSF prefers to cast off tiny, impressionistic swatches of sound that lean heavily on meandering solo fingerpicked electric guitar. Especially in the back half of the album, listening to Sin Waves is more like wandering through a lovely art gallery that plays sounds than listening to songs.
There are six longer pieces that approximate the standard definition of song. In contrast to the largely instrumental sound swatches, the longer pieces feature Aviv Cohn’s mumbling, whispering, feathery voice. “Rip Me in Half” pairs guitar and voice with some distant, muffled drums to pleasing effect; “Oil Pastel” has a disarmingly straightforward guitar lead before it gets layered upon with more guitars and voice. Cohn is fully capable of writing longform; he just prefers to do elsewise.
Sin Waves is an album in the truest sense of the word: it’s a collection of things that are meant to be heard together. I don’t see a lot of point in listening to this work outside its whole: the entirety of the work is needed for the experience to be fully appreciated. If you’ve got a half-hour that you want to spend in dreamy, ethereal mode, this album should be in your life.
Music for Abandoned Podcast by Kasey Keller Big Band shares the genre-demolishing tendencies of JFJO and the short runtimes of TWSF, making for a surrealistic, madcap 10 tracks in 10 minutes. Keller likes to group strummed instruments (ukulele, nylon-string guitar) with gritty synths, beats, and droll spoken/sung vocals, as in the eerie “Wardenclyffe” and bizarre synth-pop of “Usain Bolt.” Opening track “RIC” is almost two minutes of melodic synth-pop jams, showing a rare, impressive conventional turn from KKBB.
Sometimes elements of his sound are dropped out: “Mosaic History” is a straight synth-pop jam without strings, “Glottal Stop” removes the vocals for 30 seconds of the most intriguing instrumental hip-hop I’ve heard in a while, and “New Knees” is a lo-fi acoustic-and-voice moment. But overall, this is an experimental release that plumbs the depths of acoustic/electronic interaction by juxtaposing them in gritty, raw, unusual ways. If you’re into experimental music, jump on this.
In late 2012, I asked a wide array of independent musicians about how the shift to digital music has changed their career. I got an astonishing amount of response, and I’ll be featuring these responses on the blog over the next few weeks and months. The first response comes from Aviv Cohn of The Widest Smiling Faces.
The most fascinating discussion produced by the digital era has been the one regarding the “soul” of art/music. There’s a general sense of continually moving away from authenticity. Paper books with their familiar textures, rituals of page turning, and folded corner bookmarks are being superseded by numbers and screens. (Similar to the boxes we stare into almost every waking moment of our lives.) Paintings with their gloppy textures jutting off the canvas have been replaced by flat JPEGs. Vocals are being auto-tuned, machines/software programs increasingly replace real drums, and the dynamic range of audio is being squashed and “dehumanized.” It’s hard to escape the feeling that our means of artistic expression are being quantized. My experience has been that many share these feelings, and so the resurgence of analog media comes as no surprise.
Many fans of analog media attempt to substantiate their emotional preference for the medium by seeking to “prove” that vinyl records are of a higher fidelity than CDs. They often cite graphs showcasing the “staircasing” inherent to digital sampling alongside images of smooth analog curves as a means of reinforcing their point regarding the inaccuracy of digital audio. While it’s important to point out that this point is technically incorrect, it’s hard to deny that analog audio has a “presence” (and not the in the frequency range sense) that is missing from many digital recordings. On a technical level, this “presence” is euphonic (pleasing) distortion. But there’s nothing wrong with distortion. Distortion is good. I enjoy distortion, and you probably do as well!
However to many, the more “realistic” and “lifelike” sound of analog audio is indicative of a “superior format” with regards to accurate audio reproduction. This is based on an erroneous conflation of two terms that should be kept distinct, “fidelity” and “sound quality.” Fidelity describes the degree of accuracy to which a medium recreates a sound. Sound quality, however, is subjective. It’s not a measurement; rather it’s an indication of preference. A piece of music could be of very low fidelity, but present beautiful sound quality. For example, let’s say we’re working with a piece of music with significant harshness in the upper-mids. Converting that audio to digital and then playing it back would lead to experiencing an audio presentation showcasing extremely accurate (in fact perfect) fidelity, but the sound quality would be uncomfortable. Similarly, transferring that audio to a medium that softened the harshness in the upper-mids would result in sound that technically would be of lower fidelity, but presenting a much more pleasing sound quality.
Many experience a situation akin to the second example, but interpret it incorrectly. Because they don’t understand the difference between fidelity and sound quality, they perceive the more “musical” and “lifelike” presentation of analog audio to be indicative of a format that is “truer to the source” and thus a higher fidelity medium. This is technically incorrect, though it’s not entirely inaccurate when looked at from another perspective.
We must keep in mind that much of the audio equipment used today was developed and popularized during an era in which vinyl records were the dominant format. Engineers were well aware of the distortions presented by vinyl, and often acted to compensate for them. To help illustrate the effects of this compensation, let’s imagine a line with two poles. One pole representing “warm,” another representing “cold,” and in the middle “natural.” We can use an imaginary microphone as well. Let’s call it “Microphone A.” Suppose Microphone A, a high quality dynamic mic, was used in the recording of a popular hit in the 1970s. Not only was this song a commercial success, listeners and engineers alike marveled at its lush, natural, and realistic sound as reproduced by their turntables. Due to the distortions inherent to analog media (it has a “softening” and “warming” effect on the audio) in order to have a “natural, realistic sound” when played back on vinyl, the original sound would have to be relatively “cold” and “clinical.”
So it could be said that “Microphone A,” known for producing natural and realistic sounding albums, has a somewhat colder and more clinical sound before being softened by the vinyl pressing process. The end result of this process would be a tone that is somewhere in between (realistic).
Now suppose that due to the success of that microphone, it’s remained in use to this day. Digital music doesn’t have the softening distortions of analog media. So the same microphone that produced a natural and realistic sound when played back on vinyl now produces a sound that’s somewhat more “cold” and “clinical.” Technically, the sound of the digital recording is higher fidelity, and more accurately captures “the sound” of the microphone, but that doesn’t mean it’s presenting a more pleasing sound quality, nor does it mean it’s presenting the microphone’s sound as intended by the engineer.
Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).
The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.
I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.
Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.