Reviews: Mick Barr, Owen, Moholy-Nagy

Anthony Mark Happel

Mick Barr, Coiled Malescence (Safety Meeting)

Mick Barr is an experimental musical “nomad,” currently residing in the NYC area. His twenty years in the music biz have seen him release over 40 recordings, but he’s best known for the obscure bands Orthrelm and Crom Tech, and a “progressive black metal band” (there’s an oxymoron) called Krallice. He’s released records on some respectable labels like Ipecac, Hydrahead and Kill Rock Stars, and according to his press kit, he was named one of the fifty fastest guitarists of all time by Guitar World magazine. He’s a heavy metal Derek Bailey! Not exactly, but he’s in his own camp in the experimental music world, not unlike Mr. Bailey. And both are guitarists who push their instrument to a point of absolutism. Their music may differ significantly, but, inside their own matrix, there is a shared artistic freedom. This recording consists of two pieces running about eighteen minutes each, and both of them are broken down into smaller parts. The first piece is the more intriguing of the two, with a slightly weirder bent and more unhinged dynamics. Flashy guitar parts are whipped out and pulled back before you can process them. Even at a lower volume there’s a rough, ragged edge to the guitar sound. The second piece is more predictable guitar wizardry that one might say sounds like Yngwie Malmsteen gone off the rails.

Big Tree, This New Year (Self-released)

Originally five musicians who met at Sarah Lawrence College, the central figure/songwriting force behind Big Tree is Kaila McIntyre Bader. They were all in the jazz program at SLC and fell into a musical friendship that became a band. After three tours and some eventual line-up changes, here we are with LP number two. There are some psych-pop-jam-prog elements floating about in the mix right away, and there’s a DIY aspect that begs the question, where will this go? Two minutes into the first song, “This Fall,” after adding some heft, they nail it pretty good. Kaila McIntyre Bader and Madeleine Miller-Bottome pull off some tight vocal harmonies and Dan Pirello’s guitar playing provides some ideal shading. He tosses off some cool lead lines like there’s nothing to it, pulling songs in certain directions. It’s timeless pop that can tend toward the nostalgic/foppish. “Seattle Bound” isn’t bad, but in another context it could be a poor man’s Joni Mitchell or Janis Ian track from the mid-70s that didn’t make the album. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and this band is at their best when they keep busy on a song. The seven-minute long closer, “October,” is an interesting end point in that it actually feels like three different songs that all fit together, and it demonstrates what they’re capable of any given moment.

Moholy-Nagy, Like Mirage (Temporary Residence)

Would it be too harsh to say this is a passable but kind of ho-hum instrumental post-rock “side-project” by members of The Drift (Danny Paul, Trevor Montgomery) and The Alps (Jefre Cantu-Ledesma)? The three of them are also founding members of the late, great Tarentel, so I’m not about to insult them. The thing is, it’s reportedly taken almost ten years for this second album to appear, and it may be debatable as to whether it was worth all that trouble. They could have released a slamming EP, though. “Migratory Birds” is just so-so, and “Brute Neighbors” really wants to be Krautrock, but it’s fairly ordinary synth-rock. On the other hand, once they get warmed up, they take on a visage of melancholy that wasn’t there before. “Seagulls” is darker and moodier, with some demonic piano, and some languid open spaces not unlike Sigur Ros. And “Lunar Zone,” the best track here, comes off like Tangerine Dream’s stoned little brother, if you listen closely enough. This album is not a bad re- entry into the fray, by any stretch of the imagination. These guys are accomplished players and their detritus is better than the labored handiwork of many other bands, but as an album there’s something incomplete about it. Maybe that was the intention. Maybe they’re just getting on their musical feet again and needed to shake off some ghosts. Maybe I should just go back and listen again.

Owen, Ghost Town (Polyvinyl)

Owen is the stage-name of post-modernist singer/songwriter Mike Kinsella, who seems to be conflicted these days, both musically and emotionally. Kinsella was in the quasi-legendary Cap’n Jazz, and that partly explains the anti-pop he’s doing now, but not exactly. This album follows 2009’s well-received New Leaves, and much of it is well-played and melodically pleasing chamber/garage pop, but it also sometimes feels like he’s trying to bring the songs to a place they’re not willing to go. At first, it comes across as forced, or overly self-conscious. After a couple of listens things loosen up and more of the subtext begins to show itself, creeping in. Sure, some of it is still a peck overwrought, with clumsy lyrical quips and imperfect changes, but it doesn’t derail the whole train. “I Believe” is a really good oddball pop tune, for lack of a better description, which builds to a nice pay-off. “Too Many Moons” harbors some post-emo sourness and exploits his personality disorder. “Everyone’s Asleep in the House But Me” hits a home run, completing the ride with a big finish as he skronks his way to the fade out. That song alone elevates the album to the A-list.

Jen Shyu + Mark Dresser, Synastry (Pi)

Vocalist Shyu and bassist Dresser come together for a meeting of the improvisational minds on this abstract recording. Dresser has appeared on more than a hundred thirty different albums (thirty of them as a band leader) and has performed with some serious avant-garde big-shots like Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne and John Zorn. Jen Shyu was a child prodigy on both violin and piano. Voice and bass together, in this setting, works against certain conventional wisdom, and they embody a remarkably different kind of jazz duo that takes some getting used to, but, at some point after a few songs, it becomes easier to hear the vocals in this context as another jazz instrument. Once the transformation occurs a veil is lifted. The sound is not extremely avant-garde, it’s just that they have an ability to go in so many directions as improvisers. “Mattress on a Stick” has some effective tension, and draws you in as it generates its own uniquely fucked-up musical dialectic. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Dresser is bowing his bass, scraping the strings with something, or using electronic effects. “Night Thoughts” has him pulling sustained notes out of holes in the mix, and making them resonate against the empty space. Once any practical notions of “song structure” are abandoned the sonic images become more focused. Jen Shyu has shaken up some shit in the jazz world by forging her own path in the forest of improvisation, and by confusing some people along the way. Dresser has mentioned her “musicianship” and “ability to improvise” as reasons why he finds her so compelling to work with. Oh yeah, and she can sing in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese and Taiwanese. On the surface this pairing and their music might seem taxing, but by the end of the album you’re ready to start it all over again.

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