Here Come The Intangibles

Nutloid item of the week from a UK combo called Perhaps Contraption, whose Sludge and Tripe CD is an exhausting listen of “clever” musicianship, rampant musical style-swapping, and quasi-surreal lyrics full of annoyingly cute little imagistic juxtapositions. The songs, mostly taken at 500 mph, have their lyrics half sung and half shouted in scary, offputting fashion. The sleeve and booklet continue the pastiching game, using 19th century type ornaments and old found graphics to further the cause of these “avant-rock quirk-mongers”, as they style themselves. Needless to say, the band dress in outlandish garb and pose for their photos in a quirky way, and they have funny names like Pimi (goodgirls) Mayfair, Dildo Widow and SquireSquier, who appears to be the brains behind the operation. There’s no denying the supreme technical musical skills of these extroverted UK contempo-progsters, who sound like a more earnest version of Jethro Tull fed on acid-laced fruit gums, but I found it very difficult to make inroads into this dense and elaborate,almost airless, CD. Everything just feels forced, contrived.

I turn to my recent package from Resipiscent Records in San Francisco, expecting a similar dose of music that’s high in zanoid quotient. Shadow Stories (RSPT037) by Ava Mendoza turns out however to be a crackling disc of superlative instrumental guitar work by this consummate musician from Oakland in California. She’s worked on avant-garde and improv projects (and also does electronic music), but this delightful record is a collection of fairly straight-ahead blues, country and jazz tunes played with such conviction, fire and infectious passion that you’ll be shivering with pleasure for its duration. Apparently it’s equally thrilling to watch her perform live (her body and hands twitch like jumping beans), and that energy translates directly onto the disc here thanks to the vivid recording quality courtesy of engineer The Norman Conquest. Back in the day, I think she would have been showcased on a rootsy label like Rounder Records or Arhoolie, but here she be on this outre experimental label cooking up a storm with her six strings and her warm, old-fashioned hollow-bodied wooden guitar. American traditional guitar craft at its finest! Total recommendation for this corking record from me, but then I’m also a fan of Sam Chatmon, Roy Smeck and Joseph Spence.

With Masaoka / Chen / Grusel / Nagai (RSPT036), I feel we’re back on the sort of scary and unknown territory this label knows like its own back yard. Four powerful and far-out improvising and composing players (Miya Masaoka, Audrey Chen, Hans Grüsel and Kenta Nagai) lock horns on a number of twisted, eerie performances recorded live in Baltimore at that High Zero festival, using koto, stringed instruments, voices and live electronics. Everything creeps slowly, spits and clocks along like gigantic reptiles with false limbs and forked tongues, spitting fire. Not every moment they play is packed with that degree of ghastly genius, but at their best this foursome capture all the danger and strangeness that you could expect from modern improvised music, reviving for me some of the sense of shock and vitality I used to feel at Derek Bailey’s Company Week. Hans Grüsel has made some noisy and very idiosyncratic records for this same label, but he reins in his indulgences for this outing and acts with considerable restraint. A record so steeped in its own exoticness that you can taste it at the back of your throat!

The amazing and irresistible Liz Allbee is one of the jewels in the coronet of this label. Theseus Vs (RSPT035) is only the second full-length for the label from this performer who has lent her weird trumpeting skills to Sun City Girls, Caroliner and Hans Grüsel. Here she lets rip with a series of undefinable studio antics, making electronic and trumpet overdubs into a sort of demented minimal pop music rendered with highly unusual sounds and diversions, and achieving effects on a par with The Residents. The alternative title of this release may be Theseus Vs The Ship of Fools, and besides dropping further hints with one or two maritime track titles, the whole thing is packed in a box with a piece of fake lambswool (not the Golden Fleece, as it happens). And there’s a two-headed lamb on the cover of the box. Many lesser oddball talents make the proud boast that they will invite you into their strange mental world and amaze you thereby. Allbee not only makes good on the promise, but she refuses to let you out again afterwards. I hereby dub her the Circe of the avant-garde music world, and I have now been turned into a pig.

Also visible in the photo, though not heard, is Liz Allbee’s Warm Marrow cassette (RSPT030) which exists in an edition of 44. This limitation is determined by the available number of piano hammers between which the release has been mounted. Arrived here July 2009, in a box with various coloured slips of paper.

What better to conclude our quirky afternoon outing than the new Mort Aux Vaches release, which has been provided by my favourite cut-up wacksters from Scotland, Vernon & Burns. With their genuinely odd and original approach to manipulating radio segments and old records, they were a perfect choice to make a radio piece for VPRO in Amsterdam. This is one of the most unsettling and baffling things I’ve heard from them, which while it doesn’t lack for a sense of humour is also deeply confusing and induces many a crinkled forehead in unwary listeners. One of the great things about these artists (who actually have experience producing conventional radio) is they are never out to shock people with crazy effects, like using extracts from interviews with mass murderers. Instead they create their beguiling effects slowly and patiently with relaxed smiles, using very every-day found materials, and gradually sapping our sense of normality. Packed in a folded and embossed sheet of copper with a sunburst emblem mounted on the centre, and originally recorded in 2007. 500 copies only of this must-have item!