Keith Kawaii - The Crane Engine

It occurs to me that we're probably not going to see those never-before-released "lost early recordings" kinds of albums from present and future generations, like that recent Pauline Oliveros box set on Important, or the Robert Wyatt "68" album from Cuneiform. And I blame Al Gore and his infernal internets for that: where folks used to leave ancient tapes forgotten in dingy attics or abandoned rehearsal spaces, contemporary musicians mostly park their recordings online. Like demo mp3s creaking along on MySpace, time is hypercompressed now, and "early" recordings are likely to resurface only a few years later, especially if their creators continue to make great music.

Such is the case with the Keith Kawaii demos. Dating back to the dawn of web 2.0, The Crane Engine was first seen in the e-wild sometime around 5 or 6 B.S. (Before Spotify). Since then, Mr. Kawaii--perhaps better known as Keith Rankin of Giant Claw, Cream Juice, Orange Milk Records, etc etc--has actually made enough beautiful music and art to fill the span of most folks' careers, so perhaps it's appropriate that "The Crane Engine" has just been released in especially gorgeous packaging by German label/collective Knertz.

I arrived a little late to the Giant Claw party and didn't know about "The Crane Engine" music until this release. With so much awesome stuff happening at Orange Milk Headquarters, a new Giant Claw LP on the way that's reportedly going in fascinating new directions, and never-ending album cover design gigs, Rankin is focused on present and future works. But if you've never heard these tunes before, I highly recommend glancing a short distance into his past and getting into this amazing music, full of left-field pop songwriting and proto-Giant Claw instrumentals that no GC fan should do without.

For folks like me who have only heard Rankin bust out instrumental cable-access-synth-psych-library-music anthems, the first big surprise on "The Crane Engine" will be a few tracks with vocals. I get the impression that Keith is maybe not overly delighted with his vocals on these old tunes, but personally, I really dig his singing on this tape. He's a casual singer, but his pitch control is great, and these are really sincere, ernest takes with a lot of impact. On some pieces like "Paler than Moonlight," the melodies tend toward avant-prog craziness, and you could even call those vocals downright acrobatic, keeping up with weird interval leaps in unison with synths. But most of the vocal-based songs reveal another side of Rankin's compositional prowess: damned catchy melodies. I have been absolutely addicted to "Heart of the Clouds" for weeks now, an incredibly memorable slice of chamber pop happiness that feels like a lost psychedelic radio gem, whirling around elegant, vaguely classical chord progressions. And the album closer, "Find a Way Home," is a singer-songwriter piece, mostly arranged for guitar/vocals, very catchy and heartfelt in an idiom I never thought I'd hear from Rankin. "Man Feelings," indeed!

A lot of "The Crane Engine" is instrumental, though, and these pieces are very much in line with the larger Giant Claw oeuvre. And they're truly phenomenal. While they might lack the really sophisticated arrangements and great sound quality of recent GC releases, they have a sense of fun and immediacy that keeps me turning the tape over for more spins. This has a different kind of live-band energy, too, largely from Keith playing real drums and guitars throughout the album (and damn, it turns out that he's a fine drummer). And that sense of melody: like the best of these vocal tunes, you still have the funky synth tones and prog-meets-chiptune vibe happening in these pieces, but this music puts emphasis on triumphant melodies with a lot of earworm potential. It's not a night and day difference, but I'm hearing these arrangements a bit more horizontally than vertically in comparison to my favorite GC recordings.

The title track, broken into two parts, could really merit a review all its own. It totally nails the urgency of early Giant Claw jams, and it covers the wide stylistic terrain of more recent LPs like "Mutant Glamour," but the drums and occasional wordless vocal embellishments really humanize the piece. It definitely feels composed and arranged with the basic Giant Claw master plan, and given its provenance, listening feels like a bit like being present at the birth of a Haunted Planet. The composition must date to the period where Kawaii transitioned into Claw: the music of early Giant Claw cassette "Erasers Fantasy," for example, apparently made its first appearance in the world under the Kawaii name, and the strutting uptempo "Paper Moon March" found here must be related to the series of piano-driven Paper Moon videos one can still find on YouTube.

The folks at Knertz should really be commended for their beautiful packaging work on "The Crane Engine." As you can see above, the tape and its Norelco case comes housed in a little gray treasure box stamped with the album title, and there is a really cool patch that matches the album art. Super thoughtful, and the digi-abstract artwork really fits the vibe of the music. And it should be said that this recording sounds much, much better on tape than digital. Rankin really pushed the levels on the original recordings, presumably on 4-track, and while that kind of in-the-red approach sounds warm and a touch overdriven on tape, it's a little harsh and bitcrushed sounding in digital.

But listen to it however you'd prefer. Just make sure you listen, because this tape is like a holy grail of the Late Oughts (if there wasn't such a thing yet, there is now). Grab your copy from Knertz here or here.


Kenny Warren - Laila and Smitty

I love being surprised and delighted by new music, but the debut recording of Brooklyn-based trumpeter Kenny Warren's new Laila and Smitty project still caught me off guard: an album of roots/Americana-based music from a fellow known for Balkan brass and legit jazz? There are folks like Bill Frisell and Ron Miles working with similar genres, but their approach tends toward the dreamlike, awash in reverbs and otherworldly zones. There are the more raw vibes of 80s Tom Waits albums, great jams but very theatrical, more characters on a stage than relatable friends. But this record is different: it feels sincere, present, emotionally vulnerable yet musically confident: a "new thing" with respect for many, many old things.

Warren started exploring country blues influences a few years ago while gigging with Jeremiah Lockwood's Sway Machinery, and the Laila and Smitty project coalesced around jamming on traditional tunes, which make up a touch over a third of this debut recording. But Warren has started writing his own songs with these idioms as points of reference, and the majority of this album is made of his originals, along with one burner penned by lap steel player MYK Freedman. In addition to Freedman, Warren's trumpet and vocal work, and Lockwood's guitar and dobro, the L & S lineup is rounded out with a rhythm section of Josh Myers on bass and Carlo Costa on drums.

Song by song, these tunes cross a wide range of traditional American musical forms, focusing mostly on country, blues, and folk vibes, but with occasional forays into New Orleans brass sounds or early rockabilly. While Lockwood, Myers, and Costa largely anchor these performances with very "legit" playing that would satisfy old-school acoustic music fans, Warren and Freedman take things in unexpected directions. The basic idea of trumpet melodies on string-band-style numbers is probably the most obvious adjustment one has to make for this music, and Warren makes it sound effortless. On the ballads, he generally stays in middle registers with a gentle tone, adding growl tones and half-valves to spice things up as needed. On uptempo numbers, his tone is bright and assertive and quickly feels like the inevitable lead instrument for these tunes. So much trumpet work on an album like this could head toward novelty in less capable hands, but after hearing Warren's thoughtful, emotional playing, you'll wonder why there aren't more trumpet-led country quintets instead.

It's Freedman's lap steel work that feels like an unexpected prize within these arrangements, though. He's a killer player who includes just enough of the idiomatic cliches you'd expect to hear in these styles, contrasted with lots of really smart and unpredictable improvising. But it's his range of overdriven and downright distorted tones that especially impressed me. He uses guitar effects better than most guitar players, like the perfect shimmering tremolo in the intro to "Colorado," or the almost Snakefinger-ish weirdo rhythmic stabs and raging countermelodies under the trumpet solos of "Country Line Waltz." And the guy practically retells the history of early rock and roll guitar in his great solos throughout an aggressive arrangement of "Rock Island Line." What a perfect fit for this lineup.

Edit: it turns out that a few of these passages are actually Jeremiah Lockwood overdubbing guitars--it's hard to tell as both do employ some unusual tones, and Freedman's intonation is so good! Kudos to both fellows for great playing. --Scott

While the album definitely centers around roots/Americana genres, it would probably be impossible for a group of musicians this diverse to keep themselves from reaching into a few other traditions to see how they shine with this kind of orchestration. There's a really wild version of "Ise-No-Umi," for example, an old tune of vaguely Asian origin that appeared a while ago on a "Secret Museum of Mankind" compilation. The L & S crew season it with slow, sticky glissando shifts between droning melody fragments. It feels glacial against lovely staccato touches of guitar in the foreground. Then there are several arrangements that allow for extended technique, "lowercase" playing: "To Know" is a beautiful instrumental country ballad on the surface, but there are a bunch of salival/breathy/loose embrochure trumpet effects straight out of the Nate Wooley solo playbook buried throughout the mix in the right channel, along with a subtle fanfare or two submerged within the left. You can enjoy this gentle tune without giving much thought to that stuff, but it adds a brilliant, unexpected dimension to the whole piece if you want to really dig in with headphones. Carlo Costa gets a similar chance to stretch out with subtle scraped/dragged percussion soundscapes beneath the otherwise familiar textures of the band's instrumental take on "Two Sisters," a dark old folk tune (proto-murder ballad) of Irish provenance.

But it's not all instrumental shenanigans--Warren takes lead vocals on a handful of these tunes. He's a decent singer on the bigger/busier numbers, but he especially shines vocally when the arrangements are sparse and the lyrics cut to the bone. A lot of these songs were written at the end of a long-term relationship, and you can especially feel that heartbreak in a pair of brief but potent tunes, "Warm My Soul" and "Questions." They're not as instrumentally dynamic as other pieces on the album, but along with the beautiful album closer, "Lost and Found," they carry an almost painful share of the emotional energy that fuels the rest of the music. And they're damned easy to identify with, still worth a tear or two every time they come on even if you've already heard them fifty times.

I have to mention how incredible this album sounds, too: I don't remember hearing any work from Don Godwin or the Can Factory before, but the intimacy of these tunes comes through perfectly in these recordings and mixes. On a nice set of speakers, you can easily imagine that Laila and Smitty are playing a few feet away. I like "studio magic" sometimes, but for tunes like these, the magic is already in the songs and the performances.

And it really does feel like magic. To be honest, I'm not overly enthusiastic about roots/Americana-based music in general, but I'm so glad I gave this album a chance. My hesitations were gone a few tunes in, and after a few months of living with this album, I'm totally re-thinking my own relationship with roots music. Thanks, Laila and Smitty.

Check it out yourself: LP and digital formats available via the Laila and Smitty Bandcamp page.