Know Your Product
Microkingdom uncorks jazz-plus while Winks makes almost-human bedroom pop
Published: December 22, 2010
Three Compositions of No Jazz
You couldn’t be faulted for thinking the title Three Compositions of No Jazz is total BS. Aside from cheekily winking at Anthony Braxton’s 1968 debut, behind No Jazz is eight tracks of what must be improv, and improv that feels closer to jazz in the familiar sense than the No Wave-y bombast of the Microkingdom duo’s Wrenches debut two years ago. Credit at least some of that last part to judicious use of vibraphone, keeping the whole package grounded in a kind of near-eerie sultriness that sets off Three Compositions’ more aggro moments, and connecting to those hushed spaces throughout the record that, meanwhile, reinforce just how good the band is at juggling dynamics. As in, it’s not even so much juggling here as it is shifting and overlapping weather patterns of tone and volume—think of a low slice of stratus clouds passing under a towering, thundering bank of cumulonimbus.
A quick refresher: Microkingdom is, at its core, guitarist Marc Miller (of OXES) and percussionist/composer Will Redman (of a great many out-jazz combinations). Frequently, sax player John Dierker is involved, and sometimes, the group blows even farther up until you might call it a rotating cast. The point is that the Microkingdom DNA is perfectly drawn from all over the map, but also from a wealth of experience and talent. This is an out-there band, but it’s also fairly Baltimore canon as well.
Three Compositions is at its best when the record is at its most introverted. Three tracks in, “Real Constituent Planets” gives the listener a 50-or-so-second taste of what that is with a weirdly clipped, subtly computer-rearranged vibescape. Consider it a breather before the disc gets to its capstone, the two-part track “Gamut Runner,” sporting a title that doesn’t quite do its entirely alien nonstructure of mania and melancholy justice; sax blast-bleat and slow-motion reed flutter; discordant, No Wave shred settling naturally into uneasy, noir-ish guitar “plucks” (if a pluck can in fact be this soft). Meanwhile, “The Myth of the Rainy Night” dares to be sexy, a dark nightclub sort of piece made up of a mingling fog of wandering sax, steely guitar, and gently singing vibes. It’s the most immediately relistenable track on the album and would make for an ace 7-inch B-side with Three Compositions’ most immediate and concise, daresay composed, track, “Aire Metal.” All in all, a mature and assured record from a band that needed to prove neither.
Winks is Friends Records family members Adam Lempel of punk-ish lo-fi duo Weekend and Chase O’Hara, one of three musicians behind INEVERYROOM, Baltimore’s still fairly undersung entry into the chillwave/lo-fi bedroom electro-pop movement. Together, they sound a bit like a neat hybrid of those two bands, a bit darker and much more deliberate than Weekends—not quite as, well, beachy—and a more personal and immediate extension of INEVERYROOM, and something darker than that band as well. It’s that darkness that comes out as the most remarkable new product, another sign of musical life outside of the collective indieground’s current mass bong-rip. (If that statement inspires a wha?, just scan the last few years of Pitchfork best-of lists and counter the impression that shitgaze/chillwave hasn’t been totally in love with sounding as apart from it all as humanly possible, usually via massive delay and tone flatness.)
Perhaps the bands INEVERYROOM and Weekends, and a comparison involving them, means absolutely nothing to you reading this right now. Fair enough. Think of a base layer of chilly, crunchy beats at marching or walking pace (e.g. Psychocandy); glassine, pretty guitar melody; brittle, fuzzy synth. Which together adds to something like cold-wave, but put Lempel’s vocals and lyrics on top of it, and the net result is something that can’t be properly ascribed to a temperature.
The vocal melodies don’t really fall in line; they’re almost summery. And it’s hard to say with so much delay in the vocals, but pretty sure he’s singing about girls not in the broken-down sense but in the having-awesome-sex sense (to wit: song title “She Cums in Colors”). If there are complaints, they’re that, one, some music doesn’t always sound its best recorded as cheaply as possible and this is that kind of music; and, two, all that delay/echo in the vocals produces a sort of disconnect. It’s pretty usual in the cold-wave genre, but there’s something about the melodies being sung here that calls for clarity, if even just briefly. The thought of Winks in an above-basic recording studio could lead to very, very good things. But. otherwise, we’ll settle for the very good of this.
For more information on both records, visit friendsrecordsbaltimore.com.
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