issue 23 :: June 2014

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Vocal Music Reviews

Fortner Anderson, Ivor Cutler, John Cage, Marc Maron, Bryan Lewis Saunders

Fortner Andersonsolitary pleasures (& Records) CD + Book

Anderson’s pleasant voice, not unlike David Grubb’s, intones a number of short poems, which feel more like short stories than poetry. Each poem is named a particular day and is accompanied by unusual musical backgrounds provided by Alexandre St-Onge, Michel F. Coté and Sam Shalabi. The poems range from daily exercise, gambling debts, daily lists of casualties on the news, lists of various words/events calmly read through. “there were transgressions at lunch... I hope I wasn’t too rude.” The scratchy, thuddy free improv music beautifully seems to have nothing to do with the words, they coexist in ears at the same time. The accompanying book prints the thirty-five poems in a frothy mix of font sizes and cases, as if written as a ransom note, each letter cut from a different source.

Ivor CutlerJammy Smears (Virgin) CD

This reissue of Scottish poet and singer Cutler’s 1976 LP displays 31 short poems, stories, fables, dialogs and songs that range from charming doggerel (“Barabadabada”) to character studies (“Life In A Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 Ep. 6”) to off beat bar room songs (“Bicarbonate Of Chicken”) poured through his soothing Scottish accent and harmonium drone. Poet Phyllis April King reads a few works in her calm, pleasing voice, including a meditation on the theme of dust. I used to have an LP of a lady reading C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew;” King’s voice reminds me of that narrator. A good-natured and sly humor runs through it all, sometimes absurd in Lewis Carroll’s style, sometimes wistfully mourning the loss of the innocence of childhood. Not being English, I have just discovered these enjoyable works, although Jim O’Rourke did his best to spread the word through his cover of “Women of the World Take Over,” Cutler’s 1983 7”.
John CageSong Books (Sub Rosa) 2xCD

One of my most favorite recordings of Cage’s music, and one of my most favorite pieces of music, is the Wergo release that combines two singers performing “Song Books” and Cage himself reading from his “Empty Words” text. That remains a tour-de-force of how exciting a creative music work can be. And the very nature of “Song Books” make it an experience of nearly unlimited interpretation, as the singers (any number) can perform any number of the ninety solos in any order. For this particular version of “Song Books,” vocalists Loré Lixenberg and Gregory Rose working with Robert Worby’s electronics aim to do all 90 of the solos, something done rarely, if ever. The trick here is that only fourteen of the solos are performed as solos; the others are presented in “mixes” where a dozen or so of the solos are overdubbed on top of each other. This is somewhat necessary to fit all of the pieces onto just two compact discs, and each singer is meant to determine his or her playing independently of others; so if you had a dozen singers working at once, one could possibly produce what the mixes sound like. But it would be nice to hear everything performed live, with more singers if the idea is to do all of them in a reasonable amount of time. But the results are fantastic, this is somewhat of a high point in Cage’s composing, a return to composing for Cage in 1970 after struggling with the concept of composing throughout the 1960s (hence the extremely variable and flexible meta-compositions called “Variations” of the time). For this piece he accepts and uses all of his compositional methods of the past, he can still compose in those ways and he could still make interesting pieces with them, and he also found himself free to still invent new methods. As such, the singers are pushed to sing, shout, yell, talk and basically do one of everything throughout the course of this mammoth undertaking. The Wergo version still remains my favorite version of the piece, but this is nearly as good. I think this is necessary for any fan of Cage, singing or electro-acoustics. It’s somewhat surprising that “Song Books” isn’t attempted more as a concert piece of multiple solos happening at the same time, instead of just a solo or two as part of a vocal program of other pieces, Joan La Barbara’s Singing Through, comes to mind. I’d like to hear LaBarbara’s version of an evening of “Song Books.” Amelia Cuni has an entire CD of the raga solos that make up Solo 58 that is very influenced by Indian classical music. The other version I’ve experienced is one for six vocalists and six electronic musicians performed by the Austin New Music Co-op, but that has not been released save for ten minutes of video recorded during the performance.
Marc MaronThis Has To Be Funny (Comedy Central Records) CD

Stand up comic and former Air America radio host Marc Maron has blossomed in recent years in large part to his WTF podcast, the only podcast I listen to on a regular basis. His hour long, intimate, sometimes cathartic, interviews with my favorite comics – Steven Wright, Maria Bamford, Gilbert Godfrey, Greg Geraldo, Patton Oswalt, Doug Benson, Mel Brooks, Kristen Schaal – are required listening for fellow fans. Their stories of how they met other comics and their early failures are as entertaining as their stand up sets. As a musician, an improvising musician no less, I am astounded by the successful stand up comic who approaches the stage with nothing but a microphone and perhaps a beverage of some sort. Maron has been successfully funny for decades, his Jewish paranoid, neurotic, self-depreciating rants fueled by outrage from everyday hypocrisy and callousness. “Things will continue to be panicky and awkward,” we are informed early on his fourth CD. His canvas is his own life and his perceptions of how he is failing to live up to his own expectations, whether dealing with airline turbulence, owning cats, drug use and guilt from seemingly every personal and impersonal relationship he has ever been in. This CD, one of the few comedy CDs I have ever bought (much less an autographed CD), doesn’t alter Maron’s basic m.o. The highlight here is a seventeen minute exposé on the Creation Museum in Ohio. For non-American readers, in the U.S., there is a powerful gang of Evangelical Christians who believe in a simplistic, jingoistic view of the Bible that takes selected passages literally, including the idea that God created the world in six days and created all the animals as we see them today. Evolution, to them, is a secular lie meant to usher in mandatory gay marriage and Satan’s rule on Earth. Maron hilariously details the insanity of life-sized dioramas of dinosaurs hanging out with people, Adam happy and unnagged in Eden before Eve’s arrival (“I’m not sexist: it’s in the Bible. Which is sexist.”), and a Tyrannosaurus Rex eating a pineapple because everything in Eden (before the Fall) was vegetarian. Maron is a master storyteller, leading us through numerous exhibits, explaining the mental gymnastics the Creationists have to contort logic to answer reasonable questions to the mythology. You or I may be outraged by this museum of insanity, but Maron is patriotically proud “This can only happen in America: These are our fuckin’ morons.”
Bryan Lewis SaundersBed Bugs 1-3 (Private Leisure Industries) LP

One of many releases from Saunders, here we have three spoken word pieces; one is a whispered rant about Bed Bugs—disgusting, disturbing—how to get rid of them, how to suffer with them. Another piece is a slightly psychotic piece about a failed romantic relationship. Christopher Fleeger and Kaontrol Kontraos provide the noise music backings on two of the tracks. This is sick and disturbing. It sounds exactly like how the cover looks.
Reviews by Josh Ronsen.
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