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This will be a drive-by blogging. No time (yet again!) to write something that pretends to be deep. What I’m offering instead is a few clips from one of my favorite bands, Mike Knott‘s Lifesavers Underground (aka LSU or LS Underground).

They’ve got a new album out, PTSD, which I think is one of the more important albums to come out in the last decade (though, of course, I’m prone to hyperbole). I’m trying to talk my evil twin into posting his thoughts on the album here, because he’s got a great take on it, but we’ll have to see about that.

In the meantime, for old fans of Mike Knott and his various creative projects, as well as for those who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about right now, here are a few clips of some live Lifesavers Underground performances through the years.

Here’s “The Bomb,” live from Cornerstone ’93:

Also from Cornerstone ’93, here’s “Shaded Pain,” the title track from their groundbreaking 1987 album:

From a 1994 show, here’s “Die Baby Die”:

There’s lot’s more great stuff out there, so check it out. And hopefully before too long I’ll have talked Tom into posting his thoughts on the best Lifesavers Underground album to date, an intense exploration of the war and violence so prevalent in our world today. PTSD is a prophetic critique of American imperialism, no less potent – and even more musically adventurous – than Green Day’s American Idiot.

The Frames

One of my favorite bands is the Irish rock band The Frames, fronted by Glen Hansard or Once fame. (As an aside, let me just say that I was first turned on the the Frames by my cousin Michael, who recently died in a car wreck. He was one of my closest friends, and introduced me to some great bands that I’ll love for the rest of my life. RIP, dude. I miss you.)

The Frames were founded in Dublin in 1990, and started as the kind of classic Dublin rock band, with a raucous, pub-friendly sound. Their music has, however, evolved through the years, gradually becoming both more mellow and much more emotive, showcasing Hansard’s songwriting ability, which eventually made him famous. If you’re not familiar with his work, here’s the track that everyone knows of his, “Falling Slowly,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song:

As much as I love that song, and all of the music from Once, which paved the way for Hansard’s “other” (and more popular) band, The Swell Season, I like the material from the Frames even more.

One reason for that is the presence of violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire, who in my book is just behind Steve Wickham of The Waterboys in the pantheon of rock fiddlers. (Why do all the badass rock fiddlers come from Ireland?)

There are reasons to like both The Swell Season and The Frames, and to a certain extent it is foolish to try to force some choice between them, or to declare one somehow “better” than the other (as though there would be some way to measure that, anyway). But the electronic instrumentation of the Frames gives them a wider array of sounds to choose from, even if it doesn’t leave quite as much room for Hansard’s voice to operate. And God knows that man can create a thousand different sounds with his vocal cords alone.

Anyway, rather than using more time and space to try to describe their sound, here are a few examples of the music of the Frames. The first track here is “Dream Awake,” from their 2004 album Burn the Maps:

Here’s “Star Star **”, from their third album, 1999’s Dance the Devil

To get a picture of their live sound – for which they are more noted than their six studio albums, here’s a clip of them performing “Revelate,” the first track on their excellent 1995 album Fitzcarraldo. (And, this rock violinist would like you to notice the lead electric violin on this kickass performance of one of my favorite songs – Yes, the violin CAN rock):

Before I let you go back to your regularly scheduled life, no doubt with a couple of these great songs stuck in your head, I expect you’re wondering, “What’s up with the name?” Lest you go looking for some kind of deep spiritual significance, tempted to wonder if Aldous Huxley might be behind this no less than he was behind Jim Morrison’s decision to name his band, let me assure you that there is no wizard standing behind the curtain. The band was, instead, named after Glen Hansard’s childhood habit of collecting old bicycle parts – especially the frames. Eventually his childhood home was covered with the frames of bicycles he was working on, in various states of repair (or, perhaps, disrepair). His house was thus called “The Frames house,” which he decided would be a cool name for a rock band.

Now I’ll leave you with my favorite Frames song, “Fitzcarraldo” (from the 1996 album by that same name), performed live at Lollapalooza 2006. This song makes me cry every single time I hear it, and is one of the first rock songs I learned on violin:

Here’s a track I like a lot, by British Christian Celtic Progressive (pant pant) Rock band Iona, with a lyric taken from the famous prayer,St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Seems appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day, so here it is:

(This version is from the live album, Woven Cord, in which Iona plays with the All Souls Orchestra.)

Kissing Cousins

I don’t have time today for a full post, so instead I’d like to plug a band I like a little bit: Kissing Cousins.

Kissing Cousins, according to their Facebook page, “is an all-female rock band from the Silver Lake area of LA” signed to one of my favorite indie labels, Velvet Blue Music. Last year they followed up their four previous releases, all EPs, with their first LP, Pillar of Salt, available on vinyl, cd, or download.

The vinyl version, 180 grams of pressed white vinyl, showed up in the mail yesterday, making my day. I listened to it as many times as my wife would let me (turns out that’s three) before finally dragging my sorry ass to bed last night. Good stuff, in a low-fi, post-punk garage rock sort of way. Each of the songs are wildly different from the others, and each of the songs are really interesting.

Anyway, as much as I’d love to wax poetic about their music for a while, I don’t really have time to write today, so instead I’ll give you this, the video for their song “Sillhouettes,” from one their pre-Pillar of Salt releases:

If you like that, you should really check this out. It’s their newest video, for the track “Don’t Look Back” from the second side of Pillar of Salt. And, yes, that is Eric Stoltz getting killed in the bathtub:

Don’t Look Back – Kissing Cousins from alexis martin woodall on Vimeo.

(Sorry, the clip wasn’t available on YouTube. If you can’t see the video, just click on the link, which will take you to a Vimeo page with the video. Well worth your time.)

I’ve paid a little attention to what I call post-structuralist forms of music here lately, especially free jazz and No Wave. What those have in common is a critique of the accepted forms of genres of music, and an intentional rebellion against the conventions of those forms.

Post-structuralism in general has a number of different dimensions. The most important of these dimensions is the ethical, and that has perhaps best been expressed by Michel Foucault, whose philosophy was concerned with identifying and challenging the connection between knowledge and power, which he called “power-knowledge.” Most of us have heard the maxim “knowledge is power.” This, of course, means that as one accumulates knowledge, one also accumulates power. It is usually employed to attempt to persuade wayward students to stay in school, and has absolutely nothing in common with Foucault’s “power-knowledge.”

For Foucault, it isn’t “knowledge is power,” but rather “power is knowledge.” That is, in any given situation, what passes as knowledge is what has been deemed as knowledge by powerful social, political, and economic interests. Whoever has power decides what counts as knowledge, and tramples on what Foucault identified as “subjugated ways of knowing.”

This leads to a critique of the structures of knowledge, by saying that common phrases like “everybody knows” points not to some kind of certain knowledge, but rather to whatever way of knowing is least threatening to entrenched powers. This is one kind of post-structuralism: to say that structures serve the interests of those who wield power over the vast majority of people, and impose as knowledge those ideas that they deem least threatening to their stranglehold on power.

This has some implications in music, especially, perhaps, in rock music. Punk, after all, isn’t just musical anarchy. It is often also the soundtrack to political anarchy, challenging not only the way that popular music can be composed and performed, but also all sorts of other informal and formal prohibitions on thought and expression. In punk, whatever it is that any power would have you do, you do the opposite.

But not all post-structural forms have such an overt political content. Some are principally concerned with the aesthetics. The dictates of form and genre are, thus, not morally wrong or politically limiting, they are simply bad for art. Free jazz, in general, strikes me as such an example. The dictates of form limit the ways in which artists can express themselves, so, for artistic reasons, some artists shrug off those limits, and in doing so challenge the very form that imposed the limit, as a way of furthering artistic expression.

But there’s also a spiritual component to post-structural forms. When I think of that, I can’t help but think of the Zen notion of the emptiness of form.

One of the many kinds of sacred literature in Buddhism is a class of texts called Prajñāpāramitā (or “perfection of wisdom”) sutras. Included in this class of texts are such famous sutras as the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) and the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra). To the extent that the Zen form of Buddhism has intellectual underpinnings, these are it.

Both of these sutras, like all Prajñāpāramitā sutras, focus on (to steal from myself, in my previous life as a religion blogger) the elimination of all attachments. This is achieved by recognizing the emptiness of all things. In this, Prajñāpāramitā sutras do not differ from anything else in Buddhism. Where they turn previous expressions of Buddhism on their respective heads, however, is in what follows from this: If all things are empty, all dharmas (teachings, or ideas) must also be empty, even bodhidharma, the teachings of the Buddha.

This understanding of the emptiness of ideas and forms ultimately boils down, in my understanding, anyway, to a critique of convention. Any idea – no matter how good it may be – is just somebody else’s idea. Any form is just how somebody else thought things should be. This is all well and good, but you should never mistake it for more than what it is: just what other people think, just what other people agree on. This is no substitute for your own experience, which, if you are fully mindful, fully present in the moment, has primacy for you over what others may think.

This leads to the famous (and confusing) Zen precept: “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” The Buddha, here, represents the teachings of the Buddha, all the ideas of and about the Buddha. Even they don’t belong in some special class that has some arbitrary authority over your own experience. So, if you’re attached to even the Buddha, you’d better be willing even to kill the Buddha (symbolically, of course) in order to sever that attachment. Because even the Buddha is just another person, and even the teachings of the Buddha are just a set of ideas that somebody else had.

That’s not just Zen; it’s also punk. And it leads me to today’s artist, who exists in a number of musical genres while challenging the very concept of genre: John Zorn.

Before I say anything about the life, career, and music of Zorn, let me offer up one of his more accessible pieces of music, just to prove that when he busts out of the confines of musical convention, he isn’t doing it because he’s just making shit up to mask a lack of conventional ability. Here’s one of his groups, Bar Kokhba, performing his composition, “Gevurah”:

But, as interesting as that piece is, I wouldn’t be writing about John Zorn if all his work sounded like that. There are many, many other aspects to his composition and performance.

To get some idea of just how prolific and diverse his work has been, check out this comprehensive discography, put together by Patrice Roussel. I can’t bring myself to count all of the entries, but Wikipedia tells me that there are over 400 of them.

His work ranges from free jazz and avante garde to hard core, punk, and experiments with electronic noise, with bop, pop, and classical in between.

Here’s a video of him playing with his famous punk outfit, Naked City. Notice especially his experiments with noise on the saxophone, taking Gil Evans’ experiments with the range of various instruments to their most extreme conclusion:

Here’s one of his experiments in hardcore with Naked City (which also featured noted jazz guitarist Bill Frisell); part of a series they did based on torture scenes in horror movies:

Within a more traditional jazz framework – though still bursting with experimentation – is his group Masada, which aims to combine Ornette Coleman’s free jazz with Jewish scales:

If you’re interested is music that tests the limits not only of any particular genre, but even of sound itself, I could not more highly recommend the music of John Zorn. I’ve already spilled more than a thousand words here, and there are many more spilled on his music throughout the Internet by those who know it much better than I do. So, I’ll leave you with this: Check this dude out!

Great news! Not only am I working on a new post of my own, that will knock the socks off of both our readers, but also I got the latest contribution from our intrepid, if poorly named, 80s Correspondent, capt. doofenshrmirtz, this past weekend. Being swamped with the demands of my regularly scheduled life, I’m only just now getting to edit and post the lessons we should have learned last week. But, I promise you, they are worth the wait. And so, without further ado, I present the fourth installment in capt. doofenshmirtz’s Life Lessons From Tragic 80s Bands:

Good evening, class. Tonight’s lesson is of particular importance to those with ADD, Tourette’s or an interest to create music from samples.

In the mid-eighties yet another group from Detroit, Was (Not Was), lurched themselves upon humanity. Grasping musical styles and straws from everything they could to put together an album they first attacked the roller-skating crowd with relatively tame “Out Come the Freaks.” Yet on the same album there were early signs of schizophrenia notably with, “Shake Your Head,” an electro-funk number with vocals by Ozzy Osbourne. (Even I can’t make up odd scratch like that.)

But just when we had healed from the wounds and they had been forgotten, they crawled out of hiding in ‘87 and taught Mtv-ers how to, “Walk the Dinosaur.” This should serve as eternal further proof that all white men bite unknowingly when they try to act hip and cool and, in a perfect world, will do neither.

Then apply all the 80s band stereotypes to Was (Not Was): breakup, makeup, Greatest Hits CD, band remake, dormancy, resurgence and finally, eternal death throes with vague threats to tour again.

And what is our lesson? It came like the flu in their band remake period of the 1990…

It may as well have been an escalator ride to the Sixth Circle of Hell. Thus the lesson and break it at your own peril…

Lesson #6 NEVER, under any circumstances, taunt the Godfather of Soul.

Before “I feel better…”

After

I’m working on a larger post on the connections between punk, free jazz, avante garde, and other post-structuralist forms in the No Wave movement when I came across an interesting band: Circle X.

Hailing from my current location, Louisville, KY, Circle X made their own unique contribution to the No Wave movement, which sought, in part, to escape the structural limits of blues-based rock.

While much of America hasn’t noticed, Louisville has long had a vibrant and vital rock scene, with bands like VHS or Beta and My Morning Jacket escaping the city’s gravitational pull. Before – and totally independent of – either of them, Circle X formed after the break-up of what is widely regarded as Louisville’s first punk band, No Fun. They then moved to New York City in 1978, and became part of the No Wave scene.

They put out a self-titled EP in 1979, and then followed that with a full length album, Prehistory in 1981.

Here’s “Current,” the first track on Prehistory:

At the height of No Wave they relocated to France, for reasons that have never been made clear to me. They spent the rest of the 80s in relative obscurity. In 1989 they started work on their second LP, Anti-Utopia Flexi, which they self-released in 1990, anticipating the punk revival that would follow.

In 1994 they released Celestial, their first major release since Prehistory. Here’s “Kyoko,” the first track off Celestial:

In 1995, guitarist Bruce Witsiepe – who, along with Tony Pinotti founded Circle X – died from complications of AIDS, ending their 17 year run as a band.

As far as I’m concerned, Circle X is significant for two important reasons:

1.) They showed that punk is at least one exception to Mark Twain’s famous observation that everything happens 20 years later in Kentucky. And,

2.) They were, along with Sonic Youth, one of the few bands to bring No Wave into the 90s. Sonic Youth, of course, was a bigger commercial success, but that doesn’t mean that Circle X’s role in carrying the No Wave banner can be overlooked. Especially since No Wave didn’t give a shit about commercial appeal in the first place.

So, here’s to Circle X: Louisville’s contribution to No Wave.

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