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Odd Nosdam‘s (AKA David Madson) latest album Level Live Wires is capable of hanging in the air like a slow motion sparrow and grating on concrete like discarded cassette tape. Often at the same time. Picking up where Burner left off Madson has managed to dial in and perfect the imperfect nature of his sound. The result of countless hours of experimentation and distortion his process of composition feels tighter and more focused than on previous releases. The album as a whole tells a much more consistent story than Burner, and the humorous sampling and editing of No More Wig For Ohio is entirely absent. The samples that Madson does use are so distorted and so thoroughly integrated into each track they exist as supporting pieces, not highlights. Sonically there are still many parallels to Burner, as some of the material on Level Live was in process at the time of its release. Much of the distortion and synth is the same and Madson again uses the lovely voice of Jessica Bailiff. The incredible sense of analog-ness that so clearly signifies Madson’s work is also readily apparent. Tracks hiss and pop, overdrive and weave in such a way that one imagines the rotation of either a turntable or a cassette deck on a subconscious level. On the whole Level Live Wires is a seemingly more mature grown up companion to Burner, and a very good listen.

Check out a great interview with David Madson and stream the whole album over at paperthinwalls.

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A bean bag chair. That’s how I’d like to characterize Andorra, the newest album from Caribou, aka Dan Snaith, on Merge Records. Utterly comfortable. Something upon which to recline, repose and forget the rest of the world. With this album Caribou has resurrected the poppy hooks and harmonies of the late sixties and early seventies. Each song blends Snaith’s dreamy vocals with jangly guitars and synthesizer flutes. Looking at all of Caribou’s albums in succession this is the logical destination. The sound has been cultivated and honed with greater efficiency with each successive release. After my first listen to Andorra I rooted around in my records and found Caribou’s first release Start Breaking My Heart. At the time Caribou was known as Manitoba (Snaith was forced to change the name after being threatened with legal action by the Canadian Province of Manitoba). In addition to the name change the aural texture of the album is vastly different from Andorra. Start Breaking is more akin to Boards of Canada, using a much more electro-centric approach to song writing. With each subsequent release the electronics were dialed back and Dan’s confidence as a singer increased. My personal favorite is Up In Flames, his second LP released on Leaf, which balances perfectly his forward looking electronica and retro influences.

Back to the bean bag chair. While it is quite comfortable it quickly becomes tiresome and bad for your back, and it just plain clashes with the rest of your decor. Andorra maintains a steady pulse from beginning to end. I’ve thought hard about what songs I’d like to reference in this review as examples, but have had a hard time even distinguishing one from another. Unfortunately nothing stands out (unlike his previous albums). Pushing too far towards the 70s pop end of things, Snaith’s influences are all too present. None of the songs are able to truly twist the sound into something new (unlike his previous albums). His recording wizardry and technical abilities are never in dispute, but they do little to take this release beyond his last.

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Check out the new Chirp Compilation, it’s free for download (shh, don’t tell anyone). Brought to you by Kevin Byrd, Chirp is a great sampling of what’s new in music, with some old goodies mixed in for fun. Be sure to check out the previous compilations too. I highly recommend bookmarking it.

Cover art by Justin Van Hoy

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Remembering back to my art school days of art history, one of the most important aspects of surrealism was the uninhibited expression of real thought. This always fascinated me and I have found it especially applicable to spoken word work.

A while back Brian Beatty, once upon a time a coworker of mine and surreal enough in his own right, handed me a CD entitled The Balloon Man. He was always handing me strange things, mostly books and albums, and I quickly learned to pay attention to what he was handing me because chances were I would never have found it otherwise. Whatever it was often proved to be amazingly good. The Balloon Man was no different. It’s an album of 40 or so audio vignettes spoken by Bill Morrison, who was known around the nightclub and variety show track in the late 60’s as The Balloon Man. These vignettes were originally recorded for radio air play but were subsequently rejected for the simple fact that they are so damn strange. When I first began listening to the Balloon Man album, usually during the workday, I would often find myself frozen in mid-task, mouth open, brow slightly furrowed, listening intently to the seemingly improvised stream of consciousness that came from Mr Morrison, trying somehow to make sense of it. Trying to find some sort of pattern. Learn the code. Attain the key that would unlock the mystery of what the hell this man was saying. The only pattern that emerged was the intro and outro music that bumpered each minute long track. It created a wave that would rise and fall at regular intervals lulling one into a hypnotic like state. After listening to it for a number of days it began to wear me down. I gradually stopped trying so hard to understand it and found it be utterly entertaining, relaxing even. I haven’t listened to it in quite a while but it remains as fresh as the day I first heard it.

A short time after I was given the Balloon Man album I was given an album called Forced To Speak With Others by Glasgow artist David Shrigley. Brian had shown me Shrigley’s other work before, primarily books with simple line drawings and accompanying captions. Having been primed for absurdity by The Balloon Man, I was immediately captured by Forced To Speak With Others. Using the same strange and twisted, albeit surprisingly fragile, sensibilities as his drawings Shrigley’s tracks range from accounts of satanic rock festivals to satirical statements on family and beer. More free form than The Balloon Man, Shrigley uses multiple narrators and musical accompaniments to make each track a small little journey into very uncomfortable territories. While Morrison captures a very upbeat, American sense of the absurd, which feels more like a circus than anything, Shrigley’s work is utterly, bitingly, darkly, cringe-inducingly British.

Just last week another strange spoken word artist was brought to my attention. Mustafio. His tracks seem like entries in an audio-diary, chronicling his search for his missing car, or his friends plans for an underwater bar. The lo-fi homemade quality of these recordings makes Mustafio’s tracks seem as thought they were recorded and assembled in the broom closet of a mental asylum. His juxtaposition of words and phrases is like that of a non-english speaker, but his accent is unidentifiable, although it sounds vaguely eastern European. It’s the type of work that promises to reward the listener with many hidden delights even if the format from one track to the next is the same (much like Morrison).

I’ve stopped asking myself “What is this?” and have begun to develop a taste for kind of spoken word work. With it’s primary reliance on language rather than music the emotional reaction is more in the head and the mind than in the heart or the gut. It gets me thinking in strange new ways.

There has to be something that binds all these artists together. Some human trait that’s responsible for this type of expression. The artists I’ve listed here span 35 years, and are obscure enough that they may not even be aware of one another. I suppose that one could track these artist all the way back to early beat poets like Ginsberg, but there has to be something deeper. Something human. Something even Ginsberg shared. Something rooted in the brain. A switch that is only active in a few individuals. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I’ve learned to enjoy it.

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My good buddy over at Schneiderism has recently posted a number of robot related posts. This got me thing about out robot related music views here at the Siren, so I thought I’d make a little list of robot/technology related music and share a few thoughts on it.

Travel back to 1971. Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff release Zero Time, under the band name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. I remember first discovering this record in a box of old LPs in the basement of my parents house. It must have been 1994 or 1995, I was probably around 13 or 14. The spacey art and strange song titles gave this album an other-worldly presence. It definitely did not fit in with the rest of the LPs. Upon first listening to it I was immediately convinced it was a message sent to us from the outer reaches of the galaxy. The music poured out like grape jelly from the speakers. It shimmered and twisted in the light. It was definitely from the seventies. I always gave Zero Time special appreciation, and it was one of only two records I took from my fathers formidable collection. The other was a Hamm’s beer promo. From these two records grew my own collection. It was as if they had mated and the weirdness that resulted was a combination of everything I loved about those two records.

After doing a little research into Tonto’s Expanding Head Band I found out that they are more well known than I had expected. The name comes from the synthesizer used to record the album. To the best of my knowledge no live instrumentation was used on Zero Time, only the TONTO synthesizer. This is where it gets interesting. TONTO stands for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra.” It was the world’s first multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer, and is still the world’s largest. Apparently its sound still cannot be replicated by contemporary digital synthesizers and samplers. It was used by everyone from Quincy Jones to The Doobie Brothers.

I like to think of TONTO as the musical equivalent of IBM’s Deep Blue, or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A massively influential piece of equipment that somehow grew so big it acquired a personality of its own. Currently TONTO resides at Mutato Muzika, the headquarters for Mark Mothersbaugh. Here’s what Mothersbaugh had to say about TONTO:

“Once upon a time, Tonto represented the cutting edge of artificial intelligence in the world of music – Robert and Malcolm are the mad chefs of aural cuisine with beefy tones and cheesy timbres, making brain chili for those brave enough and hungry enough. Consequently, back in the cultural wasteland of the Midwest, the release of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band was an inspirational indicator for starving Spudboys who had grown tired of the soup du jour. It was official – noise was now Muzak, and Muzak was now noise.”

No robot inspired music list could be complete without Kraftwerk. Starting in the early seventies and continuing today, Kraftwerk immediately gravitated towards new musical technology, and embraced it in a way that only Germans can. Totally integrating it into almost everything the band did. Their songs often deal with the ideas of man and machine, and I often wondered if they secretly dreamed of being robots themselves (this seems entirely German). They often seemed as only extensions of the machines they were using to compose and perform their music. On stage their lack of pretense and showmanship was a hallmark. There was no showboating or playing to the audience as was done in rock and roll. Kraftwerk was a machine. Each member doing their task in their assigned position. But, much of their music was based around improvisation, a decidedly un-robot like characteristic. It is as if the band, and their music is the manifestation of man’s identity crisis with technology. Wanting to be both human and alive at the same time as being efficient and unstoppable in doing what is required regardless of the circumstances. (This is a great idea for a movie! I’m thinking Harrison Ford as the lead and maybe Ridley Scott directing.)

More recently Captured By Robots! has taken this idea of robotic musicianship to new levels. The story goes that a man once created a team of robots to play in a band with but the robots revolted (as they are wont to do) and in turn imprisoned their maker, forcing him to play gigs in chains and humiliate himself of stage. This is about as far from Kraftwerk as you can get but the ideas, I think, are very similar.

And most recently Andrew Thompson has thrown his hat into the robo-music genre with his just released single “We’re In Business.” It chronicles his own relationship with a robot, and the troubles he’s experienced. Here’s the link to the video as a little treat for all of you who have read this far.

I’m sure there’s more than those listed here, and there’s sure to be more in the future. But let’s reflect upon and learn from those who have come before us, and take heed of our dealings with robots. They are not to be trusted.

I freaking love the Monome 40h! It is a hardware interface for sound editing and composition software. I have no real understanding of how it works, but I think it is a great idea and a lot of fun to watch. I myself am much more inclined to futz with analog technology like vinyl, film and magnetic tape, and have a limited knowledge of digital sound tools. In fact every time I try to utilize digital hardware/software I end up getting so frustrated and confused that I want to run home in tears and fall into my bed, clutching my turntables to my chest like a schoolgirl with her favorite dolly. That aside, there is no denying the coolness and ‘about-time-ness’ of Monome and their products. Based out of Philadelphia, Monome creates hardware interfaces for digital sound tools. Everything they create is open source, flexible and they encourage customization and the sharing of knowledge between the users of their products. Here’s a bit from their press release for the 40h:

“we aim to refine the way people consider interface. we seek
less complex, more versatile tools: accessible, yet fundamentally
adaptable. we believe these parameters are most
directly achieved through minimalistic design, enabling
users to more quickly discover new ways to work, play, and
connect. we see flexibility not as a feature, but as a
foundation.

we design and produce devices in low quantity using local
manufacturing and sustainable business practices.”

What a great thing to see. We are increasingly living in a world where just about any type of information is available in any format. This includes music, video, text; whether it’s a sound clip of Casey Casem, or a Quicktime video of the evening news. There is so much STUFF available online now, and applications and tools that allow for the sharing and altering of that STUFF will increase in popularity. Commercially, many applications and tools already exist for this, but like any commercial venture these tools are created to fill a need and generate income, and are often limited in their ability to capitalize on the whole scope of what’s available/possible. The iPod and iTunes gives us more access to music now than in any other time in history; but the extent of that sharing is limited to what is deemed ‘financially appropriate’ for Apple and the record companies. YouTube gives us access to hundreds of thousands of videos from around the world, but only in the context of the advertising that accompanies them. A full screen mode is now a part of YouTube’s functionality, but other software exists that allow users to access the video content of YouTube without ever seeing a single advertisement, bypassing it all together. YouTube is trying to shut that software down to appease their advertisers. All of this seems like not being able to see the forest for the trees. “How can you quibble over advertising, when the whole world is ready to explode with the generation and distribution of content!?”

These views aside, I understand that many of these things would not be possible without large corporations. And large corporations need to make money to sustain the platform on which much of this is based.

So to see something like the 40h, created by people who’s purpose it is to make full use of what’s available to us (the internet, open source software, online communities) is almost magical.

We’ve been here before. The rise of television. The VCR. Tapes. CDs. These arguments about creating and sharing content are not new, and I’m sure they will continue into the future with each new technological development. But through it all I find great delight in finding those people who create and share without limits because they think it’s important to do so.

To hear more music by create using the Monome 40h check these guys out:
Portable Sunsets
Daedelus

Clouded from Odd Nosdam’s Burner. Directed by Spencer Williams

There are only a few events in my life that remain in my head as truly indelible memories. It is these moments in my life that are seamlessly woven into who I was as a person, and how I viewed the world at a particular time; learning of the World Trade Center attack, listening to the O.J. Simpson verdict, my first prostate examination. Acquiring a handful of Odd Nosdam releases during a visit to Cheapo Records is also one of these events. At the time I was totally unaware of the Anticon label and their roster of loosely associated artist. I had seen WHY? in concert along with Fog at the Cedar Cultural Center and had enjoyed it, but that had been the extent of my exposure. So when I found WHY?’s Oklandazulasylum in the used bin for 4 bucks I thought I’d give it a listen. Listening to that album opened me up to the truly indescribable sounds of Anticon. I rummaged through the remaining bins and found cLOUDEAD‘s first 2 albums, and Odd Nosdam’s Burner.

At the time I was unaware of Odd Nodam’s connection with both WHY? and cLOUDED (although learning about it later, it made perfect sense.) These 4 albums defined my entire summer of 2006, in fact I just recently removed them from the back seat of my car.

Burner is the kind of album that is difficult to listen to at first. The layering and collaging of sounds makes one want to listen harder to discern them. But, after while you’re forced you to relax if you are going to derive any enjoyment at all from the album. Droning tones and periods of silence make it the kind of album that should be listened to in its entirety from start to finish.

So I was doubly excited to learn of Odd Nosdam’s new album and the promotional deal offered by Anticon and MUSH records whereby one can purchase the new album along with a CD containing the instrumentals from cLOUDEAD’s self-titled album!

From the Anticon website:
An Odd Nosdam record is something more than music. More and more, David P. Madson’s albums are collections of wordless short stories and scenes, intricately woven audio scrapbooks that buzz with singular experience as lived through the eyes and ears of one very electric human conduit. Whereas 2005’s threateningly dense and gorgeous Burner was built amongst bad relationships, nasty headspaces and East Oakland situations, Level Live Wires is the distinct product of inspiration, bizarre happenstance and wonder lived out in a series of bright moments eventually brought together under the roof of an unruffled West Berkeley cottage. Here 8-track cassettes, samplers, synths and Dictaphones, lost records and found sounds, field recordings and happy accidents are brought to stirring life by our humble collagist.

My review will be forthcoming.