Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2023 December 29 • Friday

One of the most intriguing and unexpected releases of 2023 was this live recording of Derek Bailey and Paul Motian.

I hadn't listened to or even really thought about Derek Bailey in quite some time, while Paul Motian comes to mind and ear very frequently.

The main appeal of this recording is its particularity. It's very unusual in its pairing, since Bailey rarely played with people as associated with "jazz but not free improv" as Motian was, and Motian being rarely, if ever, associated with free improv environments—even though his own groups certainly found themselves in very open, creative and "free" situations often enough—maybe, more or less, all the time.

A 1990 concert from Groningen is presented on the vinyl release while a second performance from New York City in 1991 is available as a digital download, free with purchase.

You can fine both here.

And what about the music? Well, I've only listened to the Groningen set so far and while it was worthwhile to revisit Derek Bailey again, it reminded me that I mostly enjoyed his solo recordings. In combination with other people I myself have never really noticed that he isn't still just playing solo while the other players decide what to do while he's playing.

Despite extremely enthusiastic liner notes by Bill Frisell and Henry Kaiser, that's how I felt listening to this record, which for me was still amazing because of Paul Motian's absolutely exquisite, sensitive, beautiful and exciting playing.

I wish Motian had done more such things. But I wish he had done more of everything. He did tons, though, really a lot. And live recordings are very much worth seeking out.

2023 December 27 • Wednesday

With just a few days left in 2023, let's look at one of the most promising new jazz records to come out this year: Ambrose Akinmusire's Owl Song.

Akinmusire plays trumpet and wrote all eight pieces on the record. The other musicians are Bill Frisell on guitar and Herlin Riley on drums.

This is a fantastic record, small group ensemble playing of the highest order, with everyone's contributions seeming just perfectly measured and impeccably musical.

The trio format might remind you of Paul Motian's trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano, which is fine, though this sounds like post-Motian trio music—a most welcome development, if you ask me!

Frisell plays without electronic effects and is yet able to conjure some of the ambient textures that we usually associate with stepping on buttons.

Riley's drum tones and grooves are astonishing, so much so that it's hard to imagine anyone else sitting in his chair for this particular trio.

The focus is on interplay and sensitivity and you can hear the musicians hearing each other and co-creating in the moment.

Two of the pieces are duets. "Mr. Frisell" leaves out Mr. Riley and "Mr. Riley" leaves out Mr. Frisell.

You should probably already know if this is your kind of thing. Not only is it one of the best jazz releases of the year, it's one of the best Bill Frisell records of the year.

I hope they do a week at the Vanguard!

2023 December 25 • Monday

Well, here it is Christmas Day and, as all of you have expected, the 810th Soundtrack of the Week has to be Richard Band's score for Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation.

And now some of you are asking, is that really the cover of the CD in the Gutbrain Records collection? Well, of course not. The official Gutbrain archive contains an autographed copy.

And why not? Consider this film's importance in Band's career. I quote from the liner notes: "When asked about his experience scoring Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation, Band simply replied, 'I don't remember a fucking thing about that movie'".

It's actually really good, though. The "Prelude and Main Title" set the mood, which has ominous synth textures, strings alternating between stabbing and droning, and a particular sound that's probably some kind of electronic percussion. Then it goes into a pulse rhythm and a more melodic zone with some suspenseful descending chords.

"Afternoon Delight/Kim's Frustration/Kim Begins Snooping/Ricky Scares Kim/Kim Eats the Date" basically continues from where that left off and then reprises and expands some of the "Prelude" ideas.

This is followed by the airier and less intense "The Book/Kim Checks the Roof", which alternates some bright violin lines with tones of dread and tension, ending with some straight-up horror scoring.

Then there's "Kim Continues Hallucinating/Hallucinations Become Real", which more or less describes a normal Christmas. It's more swirling, droning, pulsating synth sounds and textures with some engaging writing for strings and keyboards.

Piano makes some appearances in "Kim Arrives at Picnic/They Toast 'The Turning Point'/Transition from Park/Kim Finds Fima/Spiked Coffee", popping up into the horror/suspense textures (now with some wordless vocals) and playing some pretty figures that make a nice contrast.

After that, "The Initiation Begins", with some creepy tones sliding down the scale, and the usual strings and percussion and weirdnesses all around. There's some especially nice hand drumming.

There's a lot going on here so I'm no surprised that "Kim Rises Very Dazed/Bolts Out the Door/Pops Pills". At first the music is consistent with what's come before but with a slightly more deliberate heaviness and space involved. Then it shifts into an action-ish cue, probably for her bolting out the door, before returning to the atmosphere of dread. It mellows out with electric piano at the end.

Creepy percussion and spidery strings distinguish "'Hank, Is That You?'/Ricky Enters/Ricky & Hank Fight". It gets into a cool electro-groove with some nice piano bits.

"Phone Rings/Fight Continues/Kim's Friend Arrives/Voodoo Begins" uses piano in a monomaniacal and percussive way that recalls some of Jerry Goldsmith's tension scoring. Later it gets into some queasy sound warpings and sliding strings.

More blends of electronic percussion and long tones from various interests start off "Kim's Transformation/Katherine: 'We Need a Life'". There are also some more spidery percussion and/or strings, some Doppler-esque note bendings, and gradual ramping up of terror, with occasional rhythmic pounding.

A reprise of the main title theme kicks off "Kim Escapes/Lonnie and Kim Into Van". The tempo accelerates and soon we're back in menacing soundscapes that make use of the effective strategies Band has already come up with.

For "The Attempted Sacrifice/Finale" we get something that sounds like a horror processional, acompanied by the familiar moans and drones and drums and string-soarings we've heard throughout, building in intensity and alternating unison voices with more chaotic groupings.

Finally, the "End Title" reprises the main title.

2023 December 22 • Friday

Not sure if the vinyl is totally sold out yet but you should definitely buy the new Crazy Baldhead release, a single by mastermind guitarist/producer/composer/engineer/DJ and frequent backgammon opponent Agent Jay Nugent of The Slackers (among other things).

Side A is a cover of The Stooges' "No Fun", with Dani Tute, perhaps best known as a devastating NYC power pop DJ, on vocals.

Flip it over for "Love on Loop", an original featuring Ali Presses, which is irresistible dance floor exotica that's practically impossible so sit still for.

It's nice to be buying singles, isn't it? Even nicer to listen to them, when they're as good as this one is!

2023 December 20 • Wednesday

Sorry! As usual, it's already sold out but once again I have to tell you that Reuben Radding's new photo zine, Insinuendoes, is really great!

There's a lot going on in here and the images reward multiple examinations and close looks.

If you want to get these, you have to follow Reuben on social media and pounce on them when they get released!

2023 December 18 • Monday

It's the holiday season and to almost everyone that means flamethrowers. The 809th Soundtrack of the Week is Joe Renzetti's music for The Exterminator!

Things get off to a tense and ominous start with the synth and strings-crafted "The Beheading", which builds up to a brief explosion of action.

Then there's a slow and soulful country love song called "Heal It (Part 1)", written by Byron Hill and Mike Reed and sung by Roger Bowling. This is still The Exterminator, though, so the lyrics are tailored to fit: "I've been a witness / To the spilling of the blood / Seen a lifeless body / Lying in the mud".

"Beer Fight" is another slow, shadowy, synth and strings number that creates an atmosphere of dread while frantically chopping and stabbing strings combine with percussion and other sharp sounds for "Jefferson's Mugging".

After that there's a respite, as "In Hospital Jefferson & Eastland" uses gentle long tones for a peaceful atmosphere with some measured phrases from the oboe.

But we can't hang out there all day. Now it's time for "Into Gangster's House and Dog Attacks", which starts out as low textural expressions before switching into a series of biting, stabbing notes.

Acoustic guitar kicks off "Dirty Stories", another relatively calm piece featuring oboe, but always with an undertone of unease.

I would like nothing better to sit and watch The Exterminator on actual Christmas Day, but I suspect that this won't happen. I will get around to it someday, however, and will confirm that "Fried Pimp-Fried Chicken" is when the flamethrower comes out and gets deployed. Musically it's similar to the other cues, long, low tones, conveying dread and suspense with strings and synthesizer.

Very cool percussion work announces "Gouls, Gang Banges, Shot-Car Chase", which keeps the steady rush of rhythm throughout while strings monomaniacally stab on top before settling into some long and climbing tones.

The acoustic guitar comes back, playing lovely and delicate arpeggiated chords for "Jefferson in Hospital Eastland Pulls Plug (Reimagined)", eventually joined by supportive string writings.

The soundtrack proper wraps up with the high-tension "Shipyard Chase-Shootout", which begins similarly to many of the other cues, with long, uneasy tones, but then upshifts to an ensemble ostinato with strings and percussion swirling around a series of notes, quite effectively creating a sense of urgency and propulsion.

The rest of the CD consists of repears of the cues with the "(Reimagined)" addition that adorned the "Jefferson in Hospital Eastland Pulls Plug" cue above. That one without the "(Reimagined)" bit is in the second half of the CD and I'm not sure if that's a typo or a deliberate choice.

The "(Reimagined)" versions have some additional sonorities, mostly of the electronic kind, and there's also a full version of the song "Heal It".

It's a really good score and almost certainly a perfect movie to watch with the family this holiday season. Depending on the family, of course.

2023 December 15 • Friday

A lot of highbrow literature types implode with delight upon reading an Elmore Leonard novel. (Just as highbrow music conservatory types sometimes get unexpectedly clobbered by a pop song.)

I've definitely enjoyed some Elmore Leonard books and also read a couple that didn't seem as successful. Either way, his books are gratifyingly unpretentious.

Indeed, when Leonard himself has shared his thoughts on writing, he almost protests too much against literary heavy lifting or extended reaches of any sort, whether mere word choices or loftier ambitions.

What would an Elmore Leonard novel be like if its author did, in fact, have such goals beyond story and style? (Leonard is definitely a distinctive prose stylist.)

It would probably be something like Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a National Book Award winner and simple story about a drug deal gone bad that's told in a very roundabout way and ultimately, in my opinion, doesn't take the reader anywhere.

It has a really good beginning, with an American writer in Vietnam, and you might think you're in Graham Greene territory for a bit.

Eventually this writer, with the very "sounds like the name of a character in a book" name John Converse, has to follow his shipment of heroin back to San Francisco where his plan for his wife, Marge, along with partner Ray Hicks, to convert it into a lot of money, has gone very wrong.

Certainly the stakes are raised, as the married couple have a small child that they've dragged into jeopardy along with themselves, and there are some ruthless and violent people who have muscled into their lives.

But nothing much really happens. The child, once having been used as a device to stress certain characters, disappears not just from the book but from everyone's concern.

Stone spends a lot of time on the "bad craziness" of early 1970s California and I bet when this book came out it was fairly exhilarating but now, fifty years later, I think we've consumed a lot of late-1960s/early-1970s California bad craziness narratives.

The quality of the writing is actually really good but gets a bit draining as it goes on, with descriptions and dialogue and thoughts that, while absolutely well done, just seem excessive and kind of slog.

At no point did the fate of these characters matter to me, making what should have been an impressive sequence, the gradual death of one character told from that person's point of view as life bleeds away and memory and feeling trickle through consciousness, simply sort of notable for the execution.

Likewise one of the story's scarily violent characters has a gruesome story of a horrific act he committed when a teenager. Certainly it gets to you but it doesn't actually mean much, because who is this guy? Just another piece being moved around on a chessboard, not really a character. (Presumably this story from his past is meant to flesh him out.)

This would probably work better as a movie, and it is a movie, called Who'll Stop the Rain and I have actually seen it but don't remember it at all. So it's time to take another look at it!

The first line is "There was only one bench in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied".
2023 December 13 • Wednesday

Patrick Radden Keefe's The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream is a book that not only lives up to but surpasses the enthusiastic blurbs on its front and back covers.

It begins with a huge freighter running aground in the New York City borough of Queens in the late spring of 1993. On board were almost three hundred people from China who had paid "snakeheads", human smugglers, to bring them to the United States through illegal channels.

Radiating out from this event is a complex, multi-layered, globe-spanning story that Keefe presents in such clarity, coherence and precision that the book is something of a marvel of writing-as-engineering.

At the center of the story is a middle-aged woman known as Sister Ping, unassuming in appearance, but nonetheless, a snakehead of such skill that she commanded an international criminal enterprise that brought her net gains of more than a hundred million dollars but also a legendary status that approached sainthood.

Orbiting Ping's star are violent gang leaders, persistent law enforcement personnel, thousands of people desperate for the hope of a better life, corrupt government officials and, of course, friends and family members of various reliability.

The Snakehead throws the reader right into the action as the Golden Venture slams into the Rockaway Peninsula and from there traces a serpentine path of its own through multiple countries and multiple decades.

While a sober, dispassionate and even understated account of widespread criminal empires that are occasionally in violent conflict and even in peaceful times still cause numerous deaths by accident or incompetence, The Snakehead is an actual thriller.

Attempted assassinations, Honk Kong-movie style, at a beeper store in Chinatown, the "Teaneck massacre", Sister Ping's ostrich farm, the unexpected African hiatus of hundreds of Chinese immigrants, the easy corruption of numerous countries—I wonder if you can still just buy a Belize pasport—once the book gets going the momentum is relentless.

On a personal note, while I was in Chinatown several days a week during much of the period covered in this book, and even lived for a year in the neighborhood central to the story, I never witnessed any of the gang activity described.

Also on a personal note, I know Luke Rettler, a Manhattan district attorney's office prosecutor who plays a major role in the events. I play tennis with him sometimes, doubles,and I much prefer to have him as a partner than an opponent. I'm sure people felt the same way about him in the world of law enforcement!

The first line is "The ship made land at last a hundred yards off the Rockaway Peninsula, a slender, skeletal finger of sand that forms a kind of barrier between the southern reaches of Brooklyn and Queens and the angry waters of the Atlantic".
2023 December 11 • Monday

Happy birthday!

For the 808th Soundtrack of the Week it's Jerry Reed with Smokey and the Bandit!

It starts with Jerry Reed singing his song “The Legend”, a laidback number with guitar and banjo and lyrics covering some of The Bandit’s other feats.

“West Bound and Down” is a great up tempo driving song from Reed that’s probably familiar to a lot of people and is the theme song for the movie as well as being one of my personal favorites. “We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there” is something of a mantra for me at times.

The pace slows for the sultry, bluesy and harmonica-led song “Foxy Lady”, which also features some nice fiddle playing.

Ervin T. Rouse then delivers a very fast-paced instrumental version of “Orange Blossom Special” with some especially nimble lap steel and harmonic breaks as well as some call and response from harmonica and fiddle.

Then Reed returns with another song mythologizing the movie’s hero, a mid tempo waltz called “The Bandit”: “Bandit, you’re the joker in the deal of the cards”.

“March of the Rednecks” isn’t a march, not musically, anyway, but a sprightly country rock instrumental by Bill Justis, followed by another Justis instrumental, a straight country instrumental at a more relaxed place that has a plaintive, lonely feel to it.

Jerry Reed comes back for “East Bound and Down”, basically the same song as “West Bound and Down” but going the other direction, obviously.

Then there are four more Bill Justis numbers. “The Bandit” is a calm instrumental melodically similar to “On Top of Old Smokey” and with a slick electric guitar sound.

“And the Fight Played Out” is a solid country instrumental with great fiddle and steel guitar playing while “Ma Cousin Plays Steel” is more of a country boogie.

Wah-wah guitar, strings and horns come in for “Hot Pants Fuzz Parade”, a suite of score moments that range from the martial and comedic to the romantic and the frenetic.

There’s a reprise of Reed’s “The Bandit” at the end and some CB dialogue from the movie scattered throughout.
2023 December 08 • Friday

It's been a while since I sat down and listened to a Jimi Hendrix live recording, so I gave a listen to the recently released Hollywood Bowl: August 18, 1967 album.

After an introduction by a radio DJ, Hendrix tells the audience that “We don’t mind if you laugh as long as you laugh in key,” which is a good line, if you ask me.

They start off with a very quick run through of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which is okay, no big deal, kind of like an amuse bouche before we get into what we’re there for.

This happens immediately in the next song as Hendrix kicks off an energetic take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”. The bad news is that you’ll notice that the guitar isn’t nearly as present in the mix as it should be. The sound quality in general is decent but there needs to be a lot more guitar. The good news is that this gives you a chance to admire how good Mitch Mitchell’s drumming is, what a good partner for Hendrix’s guitar and how personal to Mitchell.

The guitar is more audible in “The Wind Cries Mary”, since it’s a quieter song, and once again, the faded guitar shifts the focus to something else, in this case Hendrix’s voice, which is lovely here, relaxed and assured and just perfect. I don’t think he himself made any claims about being “a singer” but as a singer he’s underrated.

“Foxey Lady” is next, after tuning, perfectly fine rendition, the guitar is clearer here and the playing is great, as you’d expect.

Noel Redding introduces the next number, amidst what sounds like some technical difficulty noises, Muddy Waters’s “Catfish Blues”. The guitar and drums really stretch out here and, thankfully, it’s less of a struggle to hear the guitar, though I’d still like to hear it more.

With “Fire”, the music takes a step away from blues and toward… what, exactly? This is Hendrix standing at a crossroads of blues, soul, psychedelia, pop, rock. Let’s just call it music. For some reason this song doesn’t seem to be as esteemed as several other Hendrix numbers but I think it’s more interesting than some of those.

Then there’s a cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, which Hendrix really makes his own—not a simple matter but he navigates the twists and turns of the lyrics as if they’re just coming to mind in the moment as an expression of his own feelings. Which perhaps they are, considering that he dedicates it to every member of the audience.

After that comes “Purple Haze”. It’s not as good a song as “Fire”. It provides opportunited for Hendrix and Mitchell to go as far out as they want and the links with sex and drugs completes the classic trinity. But nonetheless, this isn’t a song I never tire of hearing.

Another one I can get tired of, “Wild Thing”, wraps up this recording. Fortunately Hendrix is really “on” here, with one of his best feedback-drenched intros. When the band launches into the groove you can sense the stirrings of heavier, sludgier music as yet unborn.

Some people have an influence that’s undeniable and it’s irrelevant whether you like them. Once they got here, they never left and they live on in many who came after.

I love Hendrix and will buy pretty much everything that gets released. This particular recording is closer to the Completist end of the spectrum, mostly because of the sound quality. But I’m very happy to have it.
2023 December 06 • Wednesday

One of the Oxford American music issue CDs from a while back had a song called “Touch the Sky” by a band called Black Pumas. I loved it and got the record, which had another song, “Colors”, that I also loved. The whole record is great but those two songs are the hits for me.

Now their second album, Chronicles of a Diamond, is out and I wondered if it could be as good as the first one. It turned out to be much better, not a follow-up but a leap forward that lands on all four feet.

The production rewards close listening but it’s also crafted in a way that everything comes through no matter what ears you’re using. The grooves are deep, solid and unstoppable.

The lyrics can be thoughtful or playful or inspiring. It’s tempting to say that every song is my favorite but in reality it’s more like that there are only a couple that aren’t my favorites.

But let’s emphasize these few: “More Than a Love Song”, the opening track, with colossal backing vocals, brilliantly layered instruments (and perhaps some samples), fuzz guitar and impressive lyrics delivered in a 2023 meets 1973 sort of style; the title song, with heavy soul feel, thudding lower end and devastating reverb guitar; the hypnotic and relentlessly driving 6/4 “Rock and Roll”.

But it’s really the whole record. I’ve listened to it several times. It’s right here!
2023 December 04 • Monday

The Morton Stevens Collection Volume 1, which contains Stevens's music for The Disappearance of Flight 412 and The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver, is the 807th Soundtrack of the Week.

There were both 1970s TV movies, the first being about Air Force pilots encountering a UFO and the second about a woman who thinks she's adopting an alter ego but might actually be on the bring of otherworldly possession.

The Flight 412 soundtrack does a lot with the military setting, with snare drum dominating many of the cues, but also uses other percussion a lot and exploits the dramatic potential of rests.

There's also some great dissonant and disorienting writing for strings and winds, opening the door for eeriness.

The Mrs. Oliver score alternates sunny Californian music with unsettling sections that alert the audience to the potentially dangerous undertones of the story.

The "Funeral Nightmare" cues make this fairly explicit, with ominous organ music.

The three pieces of "Disco Muzak" source music are righteous.
2023 December 01 • Friday

Barbara Comyns's Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is probably the only book that ever hooked me on its copyright page.

I always look at the first line to see if it's an invitation or a warning but copyright pages don't usually do much for me.

The copyright page for this book, however, begins with the following notice: "The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty".

The first line also invites: "I told Helen my story and she went home and cried".

As for the rest of the book, it's a slim volume, consistently understated and thoroughly devastating. The narrator, Sophia Fairclough, has an authorial voice that blends alienation, irony and deadpan description so effectively that it pretty much defies description.

The parts of the book which are asserted to be true are truly horrifying but walk hand in hand with comedy, romance, class tensions and Bohemian living as well as some fantastical elements: a ghost and a pet fox, for example.

While Sophia's life seems to amount to a series of rooms and dull employment, the pace of the story is tremendous, the quotidian on stampede.

Emily Gould, in her introduction to the New York Review Book edition, expresses the sensation perfectly as a "destabilizing inconsistency of tone".

There are characters named Bumble Blunderbore and Peregrine Narrow but by the time you meet them you probably won't do much more than blink in acknowledgment of yet another strangeness.

Sophia herself seems to have been dropped into Depression-era London from another planet and perhaps this is the power of the book, that so much is flattened into strangeness and equivalency. And what about her name? Suggestions of wisdom, of course, but also a fundamental goodness, cut from fair cloth. This checks out.

She reports events very plainly and the effect can be like whiplash. For example, after telling her lover that she's pregnant with her child and, having already had a horrible experience with abortion, is resolved to keep this baby.

l must have sounded rather fierce, because he put on a very sad face, then put his face in his hands, but he cheered quite soon and said, "Perhaps it will be born dead."

Quite a bit is implied but several chapters, the aforementioned true ones, are brutally frank about the conditions of giving birth in a public hospital in the time and place of the story. There are several other tragedies and privations as well as an indescribably sad low point to which Sophia falls, through no fault of her own.

If it's ultimately uplifting, this is because of the brilliance of the creation itself, the wild rush of the prose and the assured steering of its author. I didn't want it to end but once it did—and it's a short novel—I was not only satisfied but also pleasantly exhausted.

It's a very unusual, exhilarating and stimulating book.