Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Man and the Scientist - The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof (2016)

Artist: The Man and the Scientist
Album: The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Label: Self-released (via bandcamp)

01. Anubis
02. Bar-D-Que
03. The Sound of a Bumble Bee Keistering Pollen
04. 60/60 Vision: Right Eye
05. Toad Spokes
06. God Likes America As a Friend
07. Reverse Mechanics
08. Eavesdropping on Your Own Funeral
09. Happy Birthday Forever
10. 60/60 Vision: Left Eye
11. Do You Guys Give Up, or Are You Thirsty for More?
12. I Like to Count to 4 As Much As the Next Guy
13. It's All for You Damien [hidden track]

The Man and the Scientist is the collaborative project of Brad Schumacher (Night Grinder, The Least Comma, Street Justice, etc.) and Josh King (Tornado Head/The Everest Ruin, The Last Glacier, The Oust, and so on). They've worked on a series of other projects together as well, including some (full disclosure!) that have included myself (e.g., Baal's Beacon). Both enjoy building their own instruments and both have deep roots in noise and experimental music. However, Josh has a deep catalog of singer-songwriter, rock, and jazz-oriented material, while Brad has operated in variety of post-industrial affairs.

Their earliest performances and albums as a duo (Pornucopia, 2007, and Duke Brunch, 2007/2008) were primarily oriented around pure, experimental noise. Guitars were only present as inputs into noise rigs, just like the copious use of contact mics. Caves, recorded in 2009, espoused a more placid, practically ambient sound, with relatively clean guitar as a primary instrument. Their most recent album, a collaboration with Falsetto Boy/Cup Collector/Jim Fitzpatrick (Top Teeth, 2014, credited to Falsetto Man & the Scientist), married drum machines and synth-like noise with improvisational guitar and bass.

The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof takes this wide array of sounds and styles and brings them together. "Anubis" starts off the album with a heavy, aggressive, almost metal sound, recalling Brad's earliest punk days and the most intense moments of The Last Glacier. "Bar-D-Que" is a brief jolt of thick layers of static, noise, and radio garbage, which abruptly leads into another short blast of energy, "The Sound of a Bumble Bee Keistering Pollen". The percussion, consisting of a fast-paced metallic rhythm and what sound like tuned bells or bars, resembles Einstürzende Neubauten.

From there, the intensity takes a step down and the band explore ideas introduced from the members' assorted other projects. Unlike previous albums, in which the two core personalities were welded together to form one cohesive, overarching sound, this album reveals distinct, discernible elements of the specific interests of both members. The album has myriad sonic colors, although much of the album aligns roughly into two divisions.

Both "60/60 Vision" pieces, "Eavesdropping on Your Own Funeral", and "I Like to Count to 4 As Much As the Next Guy" are strikingly melody-oriented and almost peaceful. This isn't ambient music, though, as the sinister keyboard in "Left Eye", the chiming guitars of "Eavesdropping", and the dark synth tones of "Count to 4" make clear. Furthermore, while "Eavesdropping" has a light, pastoral mood, the title and theme are less comfortable. Part of the pleasure of these songs lies in the sophisticated bass work, which serves as a reminder that both Schumacher and King have gravitated towards the instrument in their recent work.

The opposite side of the spectrum is embodied by "God Likes America As a Friend", "Happy Birthday Forever", and the Home Alone-referencing "Do You Guys Give Up, or Are You Thirsty for More?". These are noisier songs, deliberately ugly and unsettling in places. "God Likes America" might go on too long after it makes its point clear, but the ridiculous sound collage of "Happy Birthday" is mildly hilarious after you get past the challenging listening experience. "Do You Guys Give Up" is a brutally self-aware statement to put near the end of a 56-minute noise album, but if you put the sparse soundscape in the perspective of Kevin McCallister booby-trapping his house against thieves, it too becomes more captivating. Even Brad's suppressed laugh fits the storyline.

"Reverse Mechanics" is the song most deliberately reminiscent of Brad's work as Night Grinder. The tense, hyperactive, squelchy drums and noise rig explosions would put the song right in line with Immediate Content (2014). On the other hand, "Toad Spokes" could practically be a b-side from Josh's Super Platformer (2014). The video game-like keyboards, the stilted rhythm, and even the bizarre spoken/rant section have the same sense of retro-futuristic otherworldliness.

The lone outlier is the final, hidden track, "It's All for You Damien". It consists simply of a conversation between the principals about a third person, a loud burst of noise, and then a conversation about shopping for electronics at Goodwill. It's not a particularly musical track, but if you've made it that far and can keep up with the humor, it feels like a coda, or a reminder of the human context that such unusual sounds and textures were born from.

The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof is the work of an experimental band that isn't done growing. It shares a few elements and a lot of the spirit of previous albums, but it is firmly a series of steps in a number of new directions for the duo. For fans of either member's other projects, it's a pleasure to hear them transform similar ideas into a different space for this project. This may be their most compelling album yet.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

case/lang/viers / Andy Shauf - Live 2016.08.03 The Long Center, Austin, Texas

I heard about this show two days before it took place. I had already been surprised by how much I liked their brand-new album, and even though I also saw a show the night before, this seemed like too good and rare of an opportunity to pass up.

Artist: case/lang/veirs
Venue: The Long Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 August 2016
Opening Act: Andy Shauf

01. Atomic Number
02. Honey and Smoke
03. Song for Judee
04. Delirium
05. Blue Fires
06. Greens of June
07. Down I-5
08. 1000 Miles Away
09. I Can See Your Tracks [Laura Veirs song]
10. Margaret vs. Pauline [Neko Case song]
11. Helpless [Neil Young cover; lead vocals by k.d. lang]
12. Super Moon
13. July Flame [Laura Veirs song]
14. Sorrow Nevermore [k.d. lang song]
15. Man [Neko Case song]
16. Georgia Stars

Encore 1:
17. Best Kept Secret
18. Hold On, Hold On [Neko Case song]
19. Constant Craving [k.d. lang song]

Encore 2:
20. People Have the Power [Patti Smith cover]
21. I Want to Be Here

The show started with Andy Shauf playing slow, heavy, doom-laden chords on an electric guitar while mostly hidden in the dark. His rhythm didn't change when he started singing, nor when his band unobtrusively joined in. The drummer restrained himself with a tiny, tight kit. The bassist played as few notes as possible. The keyboardist was the only musician to really stretch out his sound, but his actual parts were still rather plain. I was expecting Shauf to take a big lead, or to open up his voice, but neither happened.

After the first overlong song finally came to an abrupt end, Shauf loosened up a bit, but the basic pattern didn't change. Shauf stuck to rhythm guitar, which he was quite good with, but the music was often left without melody or even much character. Most of the songs were fairly downbeat, there weren't really any solos or lead parts, and most of the songs ended with an unfinished feeling. Shauf seemed a bit awkward, yet managed to come off somewhat humorous, which was at least something of a counterpoint to the music. While he may be a decent songwriter, his vocals were unspectacular and the music never quite took off.

[Andy Shauf.]

When Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs came out, they lined up in an ellipse and launched into the opening track of their new collaborative album, case/lang/veirs. They continued in a run of songs all from the new album, initially following the tracklisting but increasingly diverging as they went along. As the opening of the album is quite strong, the performance started on a high note, but right about the point at which the album starts to lose its focus, the live performance kept up the energy by introducing songs from the various members' solo work. With the addition of each other's backing vocals, these older songs blended in reasonably well and brought an extra degree of audience adulation.

The three principles seemed genuinely thrilled to be on stage together, joking with each other and supporting each other's efforts. Veirs was a bit less at ease than the other two; Case and lang took the stage with natural grace. However, Veirs was also the one playing guitar on just about every song, while Case only played guitar for a few songs, and lang only took a banjo for "Sorrow Nevermore". Their backing band carried the songs through, but rarely took the spotlight. Guitarist Johnny Sangster and keyboardist/trombonist Steve Moore both took a few brief solos, but filled most of the sonic spectrum underneath the vocals. (Both occasionally sang into microphones, but I never could discern their contributions.) Drummer Barbara Gruske and bassist Lex Price were both solid performers as well.

[Veirs, lang, and Case.]

The three singers share some common ground, such as some country leanings, but they have fairly distinct styles. Lang is probably the most popular (certainly the punters indicated as much), and her songs were accordingly the most straightforwardly pop-oriented. She also has the best voice of the three, which she used to her full ability. Case is something of an indie rock icon, known for her casual style, unclear lyrics, and strong vocals. Veirs is the one I know least about, but her approach seemed more rooted in folk music. While she too possesses a good voice, she unfortunately wielded it in a slightly affected manner. However, it would be entirely unfair to label her a weak link, especially considering that she wrote or cowrote every song on the album. (Of the fourteen tracks, four are credited to all three, two to Case and Veirs, four to lang and Veirs, and four to Veirs alone.)

These variations of sound and style did not detract from the performance, but rather enhanced it. It felt like I was getting the best of several worlds all at once, and excellent vocal harmonies on top of it all. Almost every song was a well-crafted effort of songwriting, honed for accessible appeal yet possessing emotional depth. The lyrics were good, the singing was superb, and the musicianship irreproachable.

"Helpless" may be a somewhat melodramatic song, but it remains one of Neil Young's classics and I can't help but like it. This trio's take was based on fellow Canadian k.d. lang's cover, starting with a unique bassline, gradually building up lang's vocals, and eventually introducing Case and Veirs' CSN-like harmonies. This song was one of the first that really excited the crowd, and the next to do so was lang's "Sorrow Nevermore". Before the latter, she invited the audience to approach the stage. This was readily obliged, particularly after she described her banjo as a "chick magnet".

[Veirs, Case, and lang on banjo.]

Both encores went over well, although I was surprised that Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" didn't receive the same level of apparent appreciation as "Helpless" or some of lang and Case's songs. I've always been a big Smith fan, and she seems to have a reasonably sized fanbase, but I can never tell who actually likes her and who doesn't. Anyway, the singers split up each verse into thirds for each to sing one of, and they all joined in for the big chorus. They took the anthemic nature of the original and made the most of it. The final number, "I Want to Be Here", was also a showcase for the collaborative vocal efforts of the trio.

Veirs mentioned at one point that this was probably a one-off project and a unique tour unlikely to be repeated. It felt like something special, and it was a lucky experience to see three such talented people in a room together all at once. They managed the rare feat of building off each other's strengths and making something better than the sum of their parts.

Andy Shauf: C
case/lang/veirs: A

Friday, August 5, 2016

Woods / Cian Nugent - Live 2016.08.02 The Sidewinder, Austin, Texas

I was supposed to see Woods at Levitation earlier this year. Obviously, that didn't happen!

Artist: Woods
Venue: The Sidewinder (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 2 August 2016
Opening Act: Cian Nugent

I was getting a bit concerned when the scheduled start time of 8pm rolled around and nothing was happening. Maybe the venue had deceived us, hoping to get more people in the door, and actually expected to start a half-hour late. 8:30 came and went with no activity. Around 8:45, I finally recognized the members of Woods moving around on stage. Right as I concluded that the opener must have no-showed, I heard an "excuse me" in a decidedly Irish accent right behind me. It was Cian Nugent, carrying three guitars. He briefly conversed with Woods up on stage and they cleared off, leaving him just about ten minutes before their scheduled set time of 9pm. The house music finally quieted. Cian apologized for his delay, blamed a mix-up with time zones, and said he still had time for two songs.

[Cian Nugent.]

Cian played what looked like an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar pickup bolted over the sound hole. The combination gave him a tone that was beautifully clear, crisp, and sharp, yet still has the fullness of an acoustic guitar. Cian's lyrics were surprisingly well put together, but his voice was decidedly secondary to his easygoing but intricate fingerpicking patterns. He even managed brief, melodic solos in both songs. I was disappointed that I didn't get to see more of him, as he certainly had promise. I liked his bluesy folk feel and thought that with more time on the stage he could have really shown some outstanding guitar skills.

Immediately after Cian stepped down, Woods came up on stage. They started out as a five-piece with Jeremy Earl on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jarvis Taveniere on lead guitar and mostly inaudible backing vocals, Aaron Neveu on drums, Chuck Van Dyck on bass, and new member Kyle Forester on keyboards, percussion, and excellent harmony vocals. They started with four songs in a slightly psychedelic vein of folk. I loved the basswork, and the songs were reasonably good, but I quickly began to tire of the steadiness of the sound.


At just about that time, Woods brought out guest trumpeter Cole Karmen-Green, Forester picked up a saxophone, and Earl switched to an electric guitar. The music took a radical jump towards a vibrant take on jazz. These songs were presumably from their latest album, City Sun Eater in the River of Light. The brass section was superb, the energy level picked up dramatically, and Earl started taking wild, extended guitar solos. Van Dyck's basswork only got better, and Neveu's rhythms got noticeably more interesting, but Taveniere seemed to fade into a corner. His guitar and vocals were both mixed low, and with Earl on lead, it didn't seem like there was much space left for him. Regardless, the subset of songs in that configuration was the strongest part of the set.

Karmen-Green left after this run of jazzy songs, and from then on the band pursued a third sonic path, rooted in their folk side but more willing to branch into psychedelic rock. Earl switched between acoustic and electric guitars, and Taveniere occasionally played more visible lead parts. Compared to the first few songs, the last part of the show was decidedly more upbeat and jammy, but it didn't approach the jovial jazzy experimentation of the middle section.

[Woods with Cole Karmen-Green.]

The band maintained a low-key, friendly demeanor that I appreciated for its honesty. For example, a particular audience member loudly and repeatedly requested the song "Make Time for Kitty" from the band's debut, How to Survive In/In the Woods (2005). Forester eventually responded and explained to the audience that there was a small contingent of fans that advocated for that song. He seemed willing to play it, and told Earl, "It feels right. Tonight should be the night." The rest of the band were clearly uninterested. Forester offered to play his own rendition, but then admitted that he couldn't actually do it.

I went to the show without really knowing what to expect. I came away pleased. Woods played a rather tight set of about 75 minutes, and after the first batch of songs, it was a solid show. It wasn't that those first songs were bad, but in comparison to what followed, they seemed less exciting. This wasn't helped by Earl's voice, which is naturally rather soft and vague, but was mixed in such a way as to be particularly clouded and mostly indecipherable. Otherwise, I liked their general sound, but what really made the band stand out was the jazzier material from the new album. It represents a laudable departure from their previously recorded work that I hope will continue to bring fruitful results.

Cian Nugent: B
Woods: B+