For several pleasant weeks, I have been absolutely tripping over myself with adoration for "Rocks or Cakes," the new album from Cloud Becomes Your Hand. These jams have sailed through the "stages of joy" most of my all-time favorites have done to my head: on the virgin voyage, this record surprises and delights with every turn of phrase, refusing to be defined, drawing from any kind of musical approach it needs to define its own magical space. In subsequent listening, it quickly feels like a familiar friend, music that's somehow been in your head all along but you couldn't make it out before. Upon even further listening, the detailed recording quality and meticulous arrangements continue to reveal new facets of these beautiful songs, imparting new secrets with every spin. Endlessly creative and catchy as hell, this is one for the ages, carefully composed, brilliantly arranged, and perhaps most importantly, deeply felt.
A lot of these tunes are rooted in 60s Canterbury scene vibes, with the gentle upbeat organs of early Soft Machine, the playful carnival atmosphere of early Gong, and the twisting, unpredictable melodies of "Uncle Meat"-era Zappa. And primary composer, vocalist, and guitarist Stephe Cooper's voice reminds me a lot of Dominique Leone (which is awesome, as his voice is pure gold). But those are surface impressions--while this music is incredibly approachable, it's fiercely unique on repeated listening. There are lost b-movie sci-fi soundtracks, weirdo hoedowns, childhood adventures into secluded wooden lots, and vaguely friendly monsters hidden under beds lurking everywhere in "Rocks or Cakes."
I don't want to do a play-by-play of this album, as it's only 35 minutes long and you should totally take the time and reward yourself. If I had to pick a few favorites, though, I'm in love with the Daevid Allen-ish progression in "Sand of Sea" and the great unison-doubled melodies near its center. The wah guitars doubling vocals in "Rat Jumps" are amazing, as is the alien soundscape the whole tune establishes. And the back-to-back tunes that open the b-side of the vinyl edition, "Bees Going Postal" and "Bay Shrimps," are packed with melodies, countermelodies, and fun shifts in dynamics that feel like short films--"Bay Shrimps" especially exhibits its fantastic main melody in a carnival of variations and changes in density. Deep motivic development or "Forbidden Zone" outtakes? Both, dear reader.
This album is a sound lover's dream. If you're listening to a string quartet or a piano trio or the like, timbre is mostly pre-determined by the instruments involved, and the musical focus shifts to melody, harmony, and rhythm. But timbre takes on equal importance in some kinds of imaginative music. "Rocks and Cakes" is a masterful example of very genre-inclusive songwriting rising to the next level with orchestration and sound design choices that are obviously as patiently conceived as the melodic ideas and formal structures. One of the biggest reasons this music can simultaneously feel universal and otherworldly is the obvious dedication to getting every sound into an ideal position. The big-picture concepts in the music feel like they come from pure moments of inspiration, which keeps the music fresh and immediate, but the key to finding yourself fully embraced in the technicolor dreams of other artists is this precise reworking of arrangements and sounds. Every synth tone is exactly right, every effect pedal is dialed in, and every unison line, tiny countermelody, or subtle rhythmic interjection is perfectly placed to highlight all facets of this joyous music.
I love the core instrumentation of this band, too: how many touring bands are working with a full time mallet percussionist nowadays? The bits of vibraphone and marimba one can clearly make out on the album add a massive amount of style and depth to this recording, and it's hard to even imagine how much mallet percussion work is actually on this record: the malletKAT instrument is its own kind of MIDI interface, and I imagine a lot of the synth sounds might be combinations of keyboard and malletKAT work. The violins, synths, drums, and guitars are all immaculately played, too. While this isn't an album of virtuoso shred moments, these are very complex contrapuntal avant-pop arrangements that would fall apart in the hands of less dedicated musicians. These are achingly beautiful performances that add up to a lot of fun.
You can pick up the CD/digital editions of "Rocks or Cakes" from Northern Spy, and the LP version was released by Feeding Tube. Cloud Becomes Your Hand is on tour right now, and word on the street is that their live show is extraordinary--check their website for dates. For my local Lincoln readers, they're going to be at Duffy's this Sunday (March 30). See you there--and save an LP for me, dudes!
Bonus alternative review of "Rocks or Cakes"
I kind of wanted to make the following my review of this record, but then I remembered how so many folks are annoyed with artsy fartsy reviews that don't describe the music, so...
My dear sweet cat Bill is an elderly little fellow, and he can't quite make all of the heroic jumps he used to manage in younger years. So we've developed a little game I call "stuff up high," where I hold him gently up to various objects and locations that he can't possibly reach on his own, and he sniffs and purrs and purrs and purrs. When I listen to "Rocks or Cakes," I think I know how he feels.
I suspect that most music reviewers are aficionados of other good reviewers, and a big part of my musical news comes through some of my favorite creative music advocates/writers like "Strauss" at Tiny Mix Tapes/Cerberus. A little less than a year ago, I read his review of Matthew Dotson's "Excavation," and was intrigued enough to order the tape, which indeed lives up to its glowing review. Since then, Dotson has released a pair of cassettes through Chicago's Already Dead Tapes, including the recent "Sublimation."
Over the course of three tapes, Matthew Dotson's music has moved increasingly toward the "vaporwave" movement, using fragments of muzak-y pop culture aural effluvium as sound sources, but the way he handles musical materials feels wholly different than most folks associated with vaporwave. At least in my cultural circles, I've heard vaporwave dismissed as a product of hastily-prolific hipster fine arts nonsense, and I've heard it lauded as a critique of corporate culture constructed from its own remnants. What these seemingly opposite camps have in common is a tendency to dissect the genre through literary, visual art, or sociopolitical lenses--it's rarely discussed in musical terms. And frankly, a lot of vaporwave strikes my ears as vague, musically lackadaisical, or downright boring on strictly musical merits.
I find Dotson's approach far more musically interesting than most vaporwavers, and I wasn't surprised to find that he's studied composition at the doctoral level. While this music can certainly abide discussion in terms of conceptual transformation or post-capitalist material repurposing, it also works as proficiently-composed music, balanced and varied and dynamic in all of the right places for a pure listening experience that doesn't require extramusical apologetics.
And Dotson is really good at selecting names for his recordings: "Sublimation" in the Freudian sense is a perfect one-word description of the potential higher-order musical implications of vaporwave, taking vintage musical idioms mostly regarded as untoward or "lame" and re-using their raw materials toward a more transcendent whole. In contrast, the earlier "Excavation" tape really does feel like an excavation, unearthing deep cuts and exotic sources and bringing them into a musical light, and the first recording for Already Dead Tapes, "Revolution/Circumvention," starts to flirt with the musical materials one associates with vaporwave without going all the way.
"Sublimation" is presented as 2 sides of audio, but the A-side feels like a 2-movement idea to me, while the B-side contains 6 shorter ideas that aren't necessarily closely related. On the A-side, the first "movement" keeps percussion sounds going throughout, staying in a fairly narrow range of mid-tempo samples. While this kind of production has dance music/mixtape qualities, there's a formal structure at work here that balances the piece: For example, the first fully-orchestrated set of materials that arise from some clean-sounding 80s guitar at the beginning of the side return around the 10:00 mark to constitute a sort of thematic restatement at its end. In between, my ears were drawn to how voice and guitar samples get recontextualized with a variety of very musical contrasts. There is a very simple guitar part, for example, one simple note that's picked and followed by a downslide, that first appears atop a "chopped and screwed" (dramatically slowed down) rhythm bed, and it reappears later over a more real-time passage alongside a melodically moving synth line, turning the guitar into more of a harmonic pedal point mechanism than the kind of rhythmic accent role it had earlier. In terms of vocal fragments, Dotson seems to be drawing attention to the kinds of melodic shapes and exaggerated vibrato one finds at climactic moments in upbeat pop tunes while avoiding their original word content.
The shorter piece at the end of the A-side starts with a kind of ominous cinematic flourish and settles into an adagio pulse of synths and vocals for a couple of minutes, and then it becomes an uptempo rhythmic workout racing to the end, with almost industrial textures in the rhythms (though classic early techno synth-handclaps are there to remind you of previous origins). Finally, it settles into some very quiet chopped/screwed 80s balladry, followed by even softer recapitulation of some segments of the earlier cinematic-ish samples at the opening of the "movement." This piece has an especially wide dynamic range that follows a classic dramatic arc.
I find myself musically more into the variety of ideas that make up the B-side. The first segment is a relatively short passage, taking some wind sounds and sustained synth-bell tones into a wickedly dense fog of distortion for a couple of haunting minutes. That's followed by an almost 60s-ish section peeking through some phase and distortion effects, eventually settling into a kind of portatone percussion-meets-Art Bell-commercial-break-bassline, where a clavichord eventually steals the bass ostinato line away for itself. Skipping ahead, the last two sections are my favorite, with some reversed sounds, short percussion samples with tight delays, and a gentle synth/string figure that eventually dissolves into solo piano lines that are EQ'ed into a hushed oblivion at the end of the piece.
Already Dead makes very small editions of some tapes (50 in the case of "Sublimation"), so if you want to track this down, hit them up here or here as soon as you can. And be sure to check out Dotson's Bandcamp page, too, as he still has copies of his self-released "Excavation" cassette available, a much-loved tape at Words on Sounds.
I first heard George Korein's earlier project Infidel?/Castro! with bassist Colin Marston on a split with Friendly Bears quite some time ago. I?/C! was vaguely on the metal/industrial tip, but with a very identifiable style of electronic mangling, rich with layers of feedback and droning metallic sounds at their densest moments that were always handled with an orchestral sense of space and proportion. Since I?C! became inactive, I've been very aware of Marston's work, both as a producer of many of my favorite albums of the last decade and as a performer in great bands like Dysrhythmia and Behold... the Arctopus, but what happened to Korein?
Bandcamp has the answers. I don't recall that Korein's late-oughts band, Art Jerks, had national distribution, but there's a killing no-wave album from them just waiting for your ears. And over the last couple of years, Korein has dropped two full-length solo jams as "George Korein and the Spleen," which expand into even more stylistic directions.
Condition of Air (2012)
The opening title track to "Condition of Air" starts with gnarly fuzz guitar that wouldn't be out of place on a classic no wave record, but over the next few minutes, it becomes clear that Korein's focus on this album is informed more by pop idioms/songwriting than the harsher edges of his previous work. Generally, these are "songs" in the conventional sense, with lead vocals high and distinct in the mixes, though most songs still use more complex forms than a typical pop tune. Synths and drum machines form the basic framework of the music, while guitar work generally takes a supporting role, evoking particular musical eras like the bits of dub guitar on offbeats in the verses of "The Sky Heaved," or blending almost seamlessly with sawtoothy-synth tones in tunes like "Sobriety I Decided." Most synth sounds are aggressive and metallic, and a lot of the guitar and synth sounds throughout the record are treated with ring modulation and envelope filters to an extent that it can be difficult to tease out what sounds might come from synths versus guitar, an approach I particularly like.
I've not often thought of the relationship between no-wave and new-wave music (actually, I haven't thought much about new-wave at all), but the minor key balladry found in a lot of these tunes makes a fascinating connection between the styles. Take one of the more straightforward tunes, "You'd Have To Be in My Dream," for example: the vocals have a touch of vocoder added in the background, and the vocal harmonies, synth pads, drum programming, and reverb treatment make me think of the darker side of late new wave, but there's still a kind of looseness in the vocal approach and a musical disaffection that linger closer to the no-wave camp. Some of my favorite pieces, though, like "I Was Entertained," are just plain weirdly defiant of genre-specific description, with a playful melody that could work in a Tin Pan Alley tune over a trudging synth line that wouldn't be out of place on a Residents album.
My favorite pieces on "Condition of Air" fall toward the middle of the record: "Dreamnose" is built on a vaguely funerary bass/organ riff with a gently repeated vocal fragment: "Don't snatch it before I love it," and the chorus section has a short but incredibly memorable melody, occurring only once in the song but casting a shadow over the whole piece. The outro has lots of heavily tweaked, appropriately dreamlike clouds of upper-octave piano tinkling, drenched in delays and reverb. Beautiful. Immediately following "Dreamnose," "The Sky Heaved" is a lyrically appropriate tune for the end of this brutal winter, opening with a Residents-ish theme that moves into great contrasting sections of pensive, slightly wet verses against comparatively dry overdriven choruses propelled by kick drum-heavy drum programming. The outro of this piece brings back the kind of electronic/tape manipulation sounds that point all the way back to intense moments in I?/C! pieces--a satisfying and nuanced ride that leads perfectly into the creepy, heavily panned microtonal guitars of "Dark Trees Dark Skies."
Brain Problems (2013)
Last year's "Brain Problems" gets off to a weird start right away with spooky string stabs, ominous repeated vocals, and delays that stack up in nervous claustrophobia. But once the song form "proper" kicks in, you get a refreshing new/no-wave tune with smart guitar playing that sounds like Eno-era Talking Heads figuring out how to work with compound time signatures. While this record is very much an extension of the general approaches in "Condition of Air," these tunes seem to breathe a little better, maybe because there are fewer harsh/metallic sounds competing for similar spaces in the mix. The vocals sound more confident, and there's more of a hi-fi vibe throughout.
My favorite tune here is "Neutral Evil," which has a great riff and some fun shreddy guitar lines playing just behind the vocals in the verse sections, and a kind of "tough guy" vocal approach that I really dig. In the middle, there's a menacing breakdown with just synths and vocals that creates a satisfying contrast to the first half of the piece. And I love the relentless dancefloor propulsion of "Pleasure of Food," which frequently gets stuck in my head. But those lyrics...
I do have some lyrical difficulties with this album. While I laughed out loud the first time I heard the opening lines of "Pleasure of Food," for example, by the end it made me super uncomfortable, like an accidental voyeur at a pretty dismal Overeaters Anonymous meeting. That tune is followed by three huge lyrical downers whose names will give you the basic idea: "Why Stand Up," "I Can't Go On, I'll go Bananas," and "Forced to Live." And the closing tune, "The Miracle of Humiliation," is a conceptual dirge in the spirit of King Missile's "Failure" or something, but it doesn't feel as obviously funny. While I imagine most of these are intended as narrative songs, there's something about the delivery that feels really confessional in a way that's awkward for me as a listener. Normally, I don't even pay a lot of attention to song lyrics, but these vocals are mixed really high, and Korein's diction is all too clear, so I can't help but feel a little queasy at most of these tunes lyrically.
Lyrics aside, the music itself is very thoughtfully arranged, and I really dig Korein's compositional style. Word on the street is that another George Korein and the Spleen album will be dropping in the near future, and I'm excited to hear the project evolve some more.