Tony Conrad may well be one of the more important 20th-century avant-garde composers you've never heard of. In 1962, he co-founded and played violin in a groundbreaking minimalist ensemble known as, among other things, the Dream Syndicate. For four years, Conrad, Fluxus artist La Monte Young, a pre-Velvet Underground John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and Angus MacLise generated their so-called Dream Music, a droning, hallucinogenic exploration of tonality and texture.
Drawing inspiration from Indian classical music and such composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, the group's chimerical forays have since reverberated through the work of everyone from the Velvets to the No Wave artists, Sonic Youth and beyond. Unfortunately, La Monte Young, claiming compositional ownership, opted to quash the release of any existing recordings of the Dream team, effectively relegating the group -- and Conrad -- to footnotelike obscurity. Conrad went on to pursue a somewhat successful career in experimental film, returning to music but once: to record an album with Germany's Faust in 1972.
Now a 55-year-old media studies professor at SUNY Buffalo, Conrad is releasing his first new work in 23 years on the same label that reissued the Faust collaboration last year. With Steve Albini engineering, Conrad, Gastr del Sol's Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs, and a host of contributors use guitars, violins, a weed trimmer, and more to produce a discordant microtonal din both catatonically lulling and claws-on-chalkboard grating.
I won't pretend to fully comprehend the anti-Pythagorean slam-rant of the liner notes, but I will venture that this two-track/43-minute CD is an exploration of a) mathematical intervals and frequencies that "fall between the keys on the piano" and b) "musical heterophony -- the failure of voices to merge 'as one' under an idealized autocracy of tone." Nowhere near as maddeningly repetitive as the Faust collaboration, Slapping Pythagoras' malleable tonal clusters actually go places, in a lazily mutating way, for a hypnotically listenable effect. Regarding the truly brain-bending nature of this disc's accompanying text, consider Track 2's zippy title: "The Heterophony of the Avenging Democrats, Outside, Cheers the Incineration of the Pythagorian Elite, Whose Shrill Harmonic Agonies Merge and Shimmer Inside Their Torched Meeting House." I think it's gonna be the single.
-- Mike Rowell
Tony Conrad headlines a Table of the Elements showcase Sun, July 16, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2525.
Songs of You and Me
Sliding somewhere into a tide pool with Lennon, Richman, Hitchcock, and the Billy Nayer Show, Kiwi pop king Chris Knox has built a career from smart gigs with Enemy, Toy Love, and the ongoing Tall Dwarfs. His fifth solo release finds him dishing out 21 new scoops of self-effacing humor, frantic paranoia, and eagle-eyed commentary. Songs of You and Me honestly covers no new territory for Knox -- but who's complaining?
With traditional songwriting techniques no less important than wit for Knox, he tucks perfect two-part harmonies inside "Half Man/Half Mole" (constructed in his usual manner with fuzzy guitar riding a drum loop), and winds a sophisticated melody through "Sympathy for the Cripple," in which a homeless man watches an '89 Mirage crush his lunch. Likewise, "Hubba-Hubba-Hasbeen-Hoot" rhymes alternated 12-syllable lines without a hitch.
But Knox's truest talents lie in capturing human situations: "Limited Liability" is a poignant sketch comparing a broken cup with a fragile marriage; "Open" studies the emptiness Knox -- a cartoonist, reviewer, and father of two -- himself feels while giving everything to his art; and, even as "Brave" disses the men's movement, with its howling chorus of "I will not change, I will not alter/ I am man and I am strong," it encompasses the feelings both of frustrated males and of those who are frustrated with them.
Yet on "Lament of the Gastropod," in which Knox sings from the perspective of a one-celled, luminescent blob, a "moving mass of mucoid" sliming across the ocean floor, he relates to us the pleasures of "oozing delicately pure excretions from my alimentary mind." One could, perhaps, say the same thing about Knox himself, whose brain bubbles with the delicately pure excretions we've come to know and love. Take a good long slurp.
-- Colin Berry
Chris Knox plays Fri, July 14, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.
Silver Apples of the Moon
What if the jerky human machine cogs of the silent film classic Metropolis suddenly dissolved into formlessly undulating hippie dancers? The resultant moving pictures might be accompanied by Silver Apples of the Moon, the first full-length recording by the U.K. band Laika. Joining a growing roster of British nationals intrigued by the open-ended possibilities of DJing but still committed to the traditional band format, Laika experiments with a sound that's equal parts rhythmic ground and frequencies in orbit.
Spearheaded by former Moonshake member Margaret Fielder and multi-instrumentalist/producer (My Bloody Valentine, Dog Faced Hermans) Guy Fixsen, Laika added second drummer Rob Ellis (ex-P J Harvey) after completing the sessions for this record. Bassist John Frenett's mechanical yet convulsive playing often acts alone, as Lou Ciccotelli's tribal-metallic percussion joins the bandleaders' "found sounds" to give Silver Apples its transistorized texture. Other exotica pops up regularly: "If You Miss" features a downy cushion of tones wafting from a marimba while the fluff of "Coming Down Glass" floats on faint echoes of the Mission: Impossible theme. Midway though the release, tracks begin to assert themselves: "44 Robbers" is a mean-street strut à la Luscious Jackson, while "Spider Happy Hour" centers around a muddled approximation of a soul-jam guitar figure.
Though Laika's music is often likened to the club groove called "jungle," Fiedler and Fixsen buoy the bottom-feeding bass of that style to keep it from drowning the high-end frippery. It's anybody's guess as to how well this organized automation will come off in a live setting. According to band members, the album's title phrase, borrowed from Yeats by an early avant-garde electronic composer, implies the "naive 1950s idea" that technology could accomplish anything. As it turns out, technology's promise was that it could attempt anything. How thoroughly it could replace warm bodies is another matter entirely.
-- James Sullivan
Laika plays a special early show (8 p.m.) Wed, July 12, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.
A Northern Soul
In a U.S. music arena of testosterone riffs and sullen rock stars, the Verve boasts an unabashed English sound, full of strong melodies, ethereal fluff, and a druggy, whoa-I'm-peaking whine. After the British quartet's top-notch 1993 debut, Storm in Heaven, and No Come Down, a B-sides collection, the Verve attempts A Northern Soul in the face of all the expectations and pressures that come with the sophomore jinx, which, in a sense, it transcends. Sure, it's tough to live up to a hype factory that equates your work with the second coming, names you heir to the Stone Roses' already waning legacy, and champions you as the only contemporary chaps that band du jour Oasis will plug in interviews. But when the first loop of Richard Ashcroft's croon wraps on "This Is Music," there's every indication that this will be just as dynamic and psychedelic as any previous work.
Owen Morris, who produced Oasis' Definitely Maybe, gives the band a trademark Brit-rock sound: as layered as the atmosphere, as trance-rhythmic as waves crashing on a beach, and as bleary-eyed as a pop star at Redding. The lulls of "A Brainstorm Interlude" and "Drive You Home" softly swirl into sparse mood music, dramatizing the slow build of "History" and the soaring "No Knock on My Door." But at times, Soul doesn't flow with the seamless cadences that marked the debut, especially earlier on. One more gripe: The thick strings that flush out the edges on several tracks are nowhere near as cool as the horn trio that supplied an adjunct environment on Storm. Nonetheless, with music that can drift from puffy clouds and cool breezes to thunderclaps and stirring gusts, Soul only falls one breath short of aural ecstasy.
-- Jeff Stark
The Verve plays Tues, July 18, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.