Monthly Archives: December 2012

A tale of two Amoebas

Back in October 2012, I traveled to Berkeley, Calif., to see the touring production of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. I’ve been to San Francisco twice before, but this trip would be the first to Berkeley.

When it comes to record stores with international reputations, Amoeba Records is on the short list, along side Waterloo Records in Austin.

On my first trip to San Francisco in January 2010, I got all the tourist stuff out of the way so that my subsequent trips would pretty much revolve around visits to Amoeba, and the trip to Berkeley would be no different.

In fact, I would end up visiting two locations: the one on Haight St. and the original location on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley.

I didn’t really know much about Berkeley before I arrived, save for the fact there’s a college campus in town. I also didn’t delve too deeply into the history of Amoeba Records itself. I just knew it was a must-see destination for music junkies.

So I was afforded the opportunity to compare the two Amoebas — one I’ve visited twice before, the other for the first time.

In terms of square footage, the Telegraph Ave. store is at a slight disadvantage than the Haight St. store. The San Francisco store is fairly cavernous, whereas the Berkeley store optimizes as much space as it can.

As a result, the classical section in Berkeley isn’t as expansive, and modern composers aren’t given specialized real estate as they are in the San Francisco store.

There’s also one thing that edges out the San Francisco store over the Berkeley store — a small but dedicated section to J-pop.

That’s not to say the Berkeley store is the boonies. The stock is still incredibly thorough, and surprises lurk when you dig deep.

I do have to give the Berkeley store a point for location — it’s not the Haight. I’ve gone on record many times saying the feral children of San Francisco (read: homeless people) strike more fear in me than the ones in New York City. Those crazy motherfuckers will cut you, and they’re teeming all over the neighborhood of the San Francisco Amoeba.

On Telegraph Ave., you have to contend with hippie street vendors and slow-paced sorority girls reeking of white privilege.

Still, I’m going to have to cast my vote for the San Francisco store if I were forced by threat of garage rock to pick one.

All that’s left to do is visit the location in a city I like less than San Francisco — Los Angeles.


Four entries behind

I’ve fallen behind in my daily updates for Holidailies, but I have an excuse. It’s this:

[Gibson SGJ and Marshall MGX15]

Or rather, these — the amplifier is new as well.

During the spring, I was remixing a few Eponymous 4 songs, laying down guitar tracks on my beginner’s Fender Stratocaster, and I came to the conclusion that I really don’t like playing that guitar. My usual go-to guitar is my acoustic, and the Strat I have sounds really bad if I don’t attenuate the pressure of my fingers. Also, the fretboared is a bit narrow for my pianist fingers.

So I went down to Guitar Center and chatted up one of the salespeople, who steered me in the direction of Gibson. I tried a few and decided, yes, I would like to get a Gibson guitar. But not right then and there. I was still paying off the acoustic-electric I bought the previous year.

I told the salesperson it would have to be a Christmas gift to myself.

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Favorite Edition Reading List 2012

I drove my car across five states to bring it to Seattle. I probably shouldn’t have bothered.

Parking is such a scarce commodity that I pretty much ride the bus everywhere. I’ve put gas in my car a total of five times this year. All that bus riding has given me ample time for recreational reading, something I seldom indulged when I lived in Austin.

For a while I was reading quite a number of music-themed books, many of them checked out from Seattle’s impressive public library.

  • Wendy Lesser, Music for Silenced Voices: Dmitri Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets I really don’t need anything else from Shostakovich other than his string quartets. I tried his symphonies and some of his chamber music works, but they don’t capture me the way the quartets do. Anyone who loves these quartets would enjoy Lesser’s examination of these works, especially in regard to the events of his life surrounding their creation.
  • Rob Sheffield, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran The chapter about the Smiths is pretty much worth the entire book.
  • Kim Cooper, Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea I finished this book with the impression that other books in the 33 1/3 Series would match it in terms of readability, thoroughness and engagement. That was a wrong impression when I struggled to finish Ben Sisaro’s treatment of the Pixies’ Doolittle.
  • Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” I devoured Kyle Gann’s columns in the Village Voice when I was a precocious college student hell bent on being what would eventually become Nico Muhly (that is, a classical composer with rock credentials). But I think Gann bit more than he could chew with this book. The story of 4’33” seemed to finish about half way through the book, leaving Gann to fill the rest of the space.
  • Thomas Larson, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings Thomas Larson could have focused exclusively on Barber and his relationship with Gian Carlo Menotti, and it would have been a must-read. But Larson added some bits of memoir and some questionable music analysis and ended up with a bit of a muddle.


Favorite Edition Live Report 2012

I go to more shows than this site would indicate, but I usually procrastinate in writing about them — not good for something so timely.

But in 2012, I moved from Austin to Seattle, and the latter’s concert scene is much more aligned to my tastes, particularly where classical music is concerned. I ended up going to many more shows, which are at least worth mentioning in a year-end review.

  • Kronos Quartet, Neptune Theatre, June 23 The last time I saw Kronos Quartet was in Austin with a program that resurrected a number of pieces from the 1993 album, Short Stories, perhaps the weakest album in Kronos’ oeuvre. I’ve seen the quartet numerous times, and this program was certainly not my favorite. The show at the Neptune was far better, showcasing a number of works from such young composers as Missy Mazzoli and Bryce Dessner from the National. The evening ended with WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich. The show was recorded for a potential live album, which I’ll snap up the moment if/when it becomes available.
  • Jeff Mangum, Moore Theatre, April 17 I heard rumblings about the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel figurehead playing shows, but when I went to buy tickets for the Kronos show, I saw tickets were also available for Jeff Mangum. I didn’t hesitate, even if the seats were in the nosebleed section. The show was pretty much Mangum with a guitar, at times supplemented by old bandmate Scott Spillane and members of Elf Power. As much as I wanted to hear “Holland 1945” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”, it was “The Fool” that really clinched the show for me.
  • Matt Alber, Maury Grange Hall, May 12 This show was something of an adventure. I had to ride a ferry to Vashon Island, and the venue itself was just a community hall. But it was nicely transformed to an intimate performance space, and Matt even chatted me up before the show. (Really nice guy.) The weather was perfect, and the show flawless.
  • Natalie Merchant, Benaroya Hall, June 22 Natalie Merchant comes across as a Serious Artist in the press, but on stage, she’s way more playful than her reputation would indicate. Read the full review.
  • 1962, Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Oct. 19 For its first concert in the [untitled] series, musicians from the Seattle Symphony set up shop in the main lobby of Benaroya Hall, where the seating was general admission. The program consisted of works written in 1962, the year Seattle hosted the World’s Fair, and pretty much demanded a setting more relaxed than symphony audiences are accustomed to. John Cage’s centenary set the tone for the evening, his influence threading through works by Earle Brown and Morton Feldman. I’m hoping [untitled] becomes a regular staple in the symphony season.
  • Einstein on the Beach, Zellerbach Hall, Oct. 27 You can read the full review.


Philip Glass: Music by Philip Glass

Philip Glass: Music by Philip GlassBetween reading John Adams’ autobiography and seeing Einstein on the Beach on stage, I wanted to re-read Philip Glass’ autobiography, Music by Philip Glass, which I’d first checked out of the library back in high school. That would have been some time in late ’80s, only a scant few years after Glass had premiered his third opera, Akhenaten.

There was just one problem — it’s been out of print since the mid-90s. But a stop by Powell’s City of Books in Portland on my way from Austin to Seattle fixed that problem right quick.

Music by Philip Glass focuses on the period of the composer’s life when he created his first three operas: Einstein on the Beach, Satyragraha and Akhenaten. They’re labeled a “trilogy”, but I don’t get the sense from Glass that he set out to write these operas in the same way George Lucas set out to create the Star Wars universe.

Einstein on the Beach was enough of a success that it allowed Glass to scratch an itch to make additional works about history-changing figures. Marketing forces certainly helped along in billing these works as part of a greater whole.

The book also includes the complete libretti of these works, filling it out to make up for Glass’ mostly straight-forward remembrances. Glass ruminates a bit of his creative process but not in the depth Adams did in his book, Hallelujah Junction. It’s not quite a fair comparison since Adams wrote his book at a point much later in his career than Glass did his.

Which pretty much means that Music by Philip Glass is good candidate for a major update. It’s been 25 years since the book’s publication, and Glass has far larger body of work to cover — additional operas, film scores and a number of symphonies.

Still, it’s a nice insider’s look on the amount of work that goes into staging large-scale works such as operas. Despite the critical success of Einstein on the Beach, the touring production left Glass and directory Robert Wilson in debt to the tune of $190,000. It took years for the Wilson’s production company to pay it off, and Glass still drove a taxi cab and worked as a plumber afterward.

Glass also describes how he never composes in the afternoon. He establishes a routine for himself so that creative ideas don’t occur to him when he’s dealing with the business end of arts programming He also writes about the years preceding the trilogy, including his tutelage under Nadia Boulanger and work with Ravi Shankar.

All that’s missing now are the two decades following the trilogy. A sequel is definitely in order.


Tokyo Jihen: Shinyawaku

Tokyo Jihen: ShinyawakuThe dissolution of Tokyo Jihen in February 2012 spurred EMI Japan to flood store shelves with Tokyo Jihen releases. In addition to a 6-track EP (color bars), the label released a live compilation (Tokyo Collection) and a b-sides collection (Shinyawaku). In February 2013, a comprehensive boxed set is scheduled.

If taken as an album in its own regard, Shinyawaku could stand along side Sports and Otona as the best Tokyo Jihen had to offer. The album had a diverse range of material, from disco and dirty funk to covers of Rodgers and Hart and Brenda Lee.

In particular, the band’s take on the obscure Ned Doheny track “Get It Up for Love” — translated as “Koi wa Maboroshi” — injects a shot of energy into the too-mellow original. “Pinocchio” could have been an incredibly lush track if Shiina Ringo recorded it for her own solo work.

“Gaman” and “Kaban no Nakami” offer the straight-ahead rock at which Tokyo Jihen excels but at times went missing on the albums proper.

Like Sports and Otona, Shinyawaku has little in the way of filler, which is odd considering the fact these tracks served no other purpose than to fill out single releases.

Which then brings up the point: how did these tracks not end up on the album?

Tokyo Jihen’s weakest album, Goraku, could have been strengthened with the inclusion of “B.B.Queen” or “Pinocchio”.

“Kao”, a coupling track from the single “Gunjou Biyori”, is a lot more interesting than some of the tracks that made it onto the band’s debut, Kyoiku.

As tight a collection Shinyawaku may be, it’s also a document of Tokyo Jihen’s missteps. A lot of this material is just too good to have been stashed away on individual singles, and their compilation onto a single release shouldn’t overshadow the main canon.



ZAZEN BOYS: StoriesHere’s a startling statistic: ZAZEN BOYS has lasted longer than NUMBER GIRL.

Mukai Shuutoku’s watershed band lasted 7 years, whereas ZAZEN BOYS will be turning 10 in 2013.

There’s no mistaking ZAZEN BOYS as anything other than Mukai’s personal sonic canvas. NUMBER GIRL didn’t survive one member leaving. ZAZEN BOYS has survived two line-up changes. Despite the longevity, it doesn’t seem Mukai really zeroed in on the band’s core sound until recently.

I’ll admit I was nervous about the release of Stories. It’s been more than a half decade since ZAZEN BOYS III, an album of pointless noise-making that made me question Mukai’s creative direction. 2008’s ZAZEN BOYS 4 provided a course correction, with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann easing Mukai into the world of synthesizers.

Would Mukai be able to reign in his freak outs without the guiding hand of an outside producer? Stories provides the answer, and all signs point to yes.

One good thing did come out ZAZEN BOYS III — it established a benchmark for how weird ZAZEN BOYS can get. Stories doesn’t reach that far, but it’s still a fairly avant-garde work.

Instead of working with the concept of melody, chords or harmonic rhythm, Mukai fashions long strings of melodic ideas — most of them only vaguely tonal — into a punctured texture. Very few tracks on Stories have a steady beat, and most of them don’t have anything resembling a hook.

“Potato Salad” has the shifting rhythms Mukai explored in “Himitsu Girl’s Top Secret.” “Kigatsukeba Midnight” is some strange form of be-bop where the stated melody never turns into an improvisation. “Sandpaper Zarazara” could almost be considered minimalist if Philip Glass decided to sound more like Thurston Moore.

At the same time, Stories has some of the most melodic material Mukai has written in a long time. “Heartbreak” has a bona fide guitar hook, and Mukai sings a real melody. The album’s title track could have been a lost work from Mukai’s collaboration with pop singer Leo IMAI. The synth-heavy track is almost danceable.

Even the concluding track “Tengu”, a clash of keyboards, guitars and drums, is threaded together by Mukai’s mouthy but coherent vocals.

It’s taken a decade, but Mukai seems to have found how far he can push his boundaries. Stories doesn’t alienate, but it stays true to its avant-garde core.

… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs

... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead loves them some prog rock, and at times, that influence has bogged down their albums. 2011’s Tao of the Dead was split into two parts, the second a 16-minute, single track epic. I can’t say the album left much of an impression with me.

Lost Songs, by contrast, scales back those bigger gesture to offer perhaps the most straight-forward — and fastest — … Trail of Dead album in their discography.

“Open Doors” opens with the band’s usual typhoon of guitars, but it’s on the second track, “Pinhole Cameras”, where the album takes off.

If anything, the tracks from that point onward have one tempo marking — fast as fuck. It’s not till half way through the album does the pace gets ratcheted down.

“Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” have all the familiar … Trail of Dead tricks — breaks in the middle of song, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece doing their best to bust the heads of the vocal mics, and guitars. Lots and lots of guitars.

This time, the mid-song breaks aren’t the vast, meandering detours of the past and in fact, provide a nice reprieve from all the intensity.

The songwriting on Lost Songs is some of the focused the band has produced since Madonna or Source Code and Tags. I’d probably go as far to say the DNA of “Mistakes and Regrets” found its way into every track on the album.

I do have to confess that I don’t have much of a connection to prog rock itself, so when … Trail of Dead reign in those tendencies, I find myself enjoying their albums a lot more. And I enjoyed Lost Songs quite a lot.


Looking ahead: December 2012 – February 2013

Releases are few and far between until March, when the run-up to the summer concert season begins.

Utada Hikaru, “Sakura Nagashi”, Dec. 26 (DVD Single)

Utada Hikaru is still officially on hiatus, but she took some time off to dash off a theme song for the latest Evangelion movie. The digital release of this two-track single happened back in late November, and it even included the US.

Sasagawa Miwa, Machi no Kaori, Jan. 16

It looks like Sasagawa Miwa is easing back into her label relationship with Avex Trax, following up the August release of Oroka na Negai with another mini-album. The title in kanji can be read “tokai no kaori”, but the furigana reading indicates “tokai” should be read “machi”.

Camper Van Beethoven, La Costa Perdida, Jan. 22

Wait, what … you mean to say the last time Camper Van Beethoven released an album was eight years ago. And I actually remember being excited about the band’s reunion, and that was a decade ago.

Björk, Bastards, Feb. 5

Biophilia spawned quite a number of remixes which are compiled on this release.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon, Feb. 26

I didn’t warm up to Emmylou Harris’ duet album with Mark Knopfler mostly because I’m no fan of Knopfler. I’m more intrigued by this duet album with Rodney Crowell because of his history with Harris. He was an original member of her legendary Hot Band, and this album is being produced by Brian Ahrens, who helmed Harris’ earliest albums.

Tokyo Jihen, HARD DISK, Feb. 27

Well, this is a pickle. I have just about every Tokyo Jihen release. And now there’s word of a disc of extras? And a USB drive with a new song? But I have to re-purchase every album to get them? I missed out on the wonderful remastering of the MoRA boxed set because I wanted to minimize the redundancy of my Shiina Ringo collection, so is there a similar incentive here? Bah.


Out magazine features rock acts with queer members

The year-end issue of Out magazine includes a short feature on queer musicians in metal and hardcore bands. The article has a sidebar focusing on specific albums from bands mentioned in the feature.

I’ve always had better luck finding interesting music by gay artists from Out than from its hard news cousin, the Advocate. In fact, I’ve written about the Advocate’s music coverage before, but now that the Advocate is little more than a supplement, it’s up to Out to pick up the slack.

Unlike the Advocate, Out is willing to feature music with the most tangential relationship to gay audiences. If one member of a 10-piece band is an out musician, they have a shot at being covered. Just so long as the music is decent.

And the music featured in this metal/hardcore feature is actually pretty decent. Unlike four years ago, I skipped Myspace and went straight to Spotify.

I’ll admit God Seed and Nü Sensae weren’t my cup of tea, but Torche and Gaytheist were. It also helped that Out compared the former to Hüsker Dü and the latter to Fugazi. I’m not sure if the comparisons are totally on target, but of the four bands, Torche and Gaytheist struck that right balance of aggression and melody.

These albums join a really good line-up of 2012 releases by gay artists.

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