Riff Raff

Everything Quieter Than Everything Else; Studio Time

Everything Quieter Than Everything Else
Like a lot of so-called "new music" records in the marketplace these days, the packaging of the Threnody Ensemble's first album, Timbre Hollow, is a subdued and tasteful affair. The front cover is the color of parchment, with a gracefully scrawled music chart. The photos inside are artsy, blurred images of the musicians involved -- cellist Dominique Davison and guitarists Erik Hoversten and Dave Cerf. The back cover is a personnel listing as straightforward as any classical record. Except that Davison's, Hoversten's, and Cerf's names are typed in the same font that British metal icon Iron Maiden uses on its records.

"Dave was sort of despairing of the fact that [the record packaging] looked so solidly hoity-toity," explains Hoversten. "We wanted to somehow make some concession to the fact that we don't take ourselves that seriously. It's so subtle that somebody who isn't from a rock background isn't going to notice it." Hoversten himself comes from a rock background -- for six years, he toiled in the brilliant and often metal-stoked San Francisco band A Minor Forest, which across three albums was an object lesson in how being loud needn't mean being clichéd, and how talent doesn't necessarily mean being self-indulgently arty. With that band's breakup in late 1998, Hoversten's had more time to concentrate on the Threnody Ensemble, which is an entirely different affair -- mainly acoustic and stemming from a composer's sensibility, the music bridges the gap between the classical tradition and the legacy of oblique indie "math rock" groups like Slint, Rodan, and A Minor Forest itself.

Hoversten's shift into composition and relative quietude isn't unique amongst the quote-unquote math rock community. Members of that scene's Chicago hub convened in 1998 as Pullman, making a beautiful (if unfortunately ignored) acoustic song cycle, Turnstyles and Junkpiles, while groups like Don Caballero, the For Carnation, and June of 44 have slowly eased either into more contemplative styles or begun to see the merits of making electronic music. "For myself, it's just a natural progression," says Hoversten. "I felt like there was a threshold to the complexity that can be achieved in a rock band context. You're competing with this incredible volume. ... People have been trying to make music that's more ambitious and complex, but not for the sake of being complex. It just makes sense that people would start switching into formats where that's more easily achieved."

There's nothing daunting about the music on Timbre Hollow. In fact, it's one of the most remarkably giving, accessible, and simply beautiful records to come from these parts in some time. Neither rigidly chamber pop nor wildly experimental, its spare, slow, organic sound is utterly entrancing. The three-part "ThaRoman" revolves around an airy gamelan hook, while "Somewhere Near Denton" and "The Machine" use electronic treatments to add a haunting, distant feel to the songs. The result is surprisingly cohesive, considering that the record was made over three years, on three separate trips to North Carolina. And more surprising still, since the composing process was often built around hours of improvisations that would be taped, relearned, layered, and eventually scored.

But, that job finished, Hoversten's main concern these days is whether the record will get heard -- and where in the record store one files a post-math rock post-minimalist chamber-trio song cycle anyway -- though the group's label, San Francisco-based New Albion Records, has some expertise in figuring out how to get new-school icons like Elliot Carter, Anthony Braxton, Terry Riley, and Karlheinz Stockhausen into the hands of the right people. "Not all, but a good percentage of the indie rock kids would find it interesting," says Hoversten. "Whether they know the record exists is another matter." Timbre Hollowwill be officially released July 25, but is available for order at www.newalbion.com; a record release party will be held at Noe Valley Ministry Aug. 19. Sound samples, downloadable scores, and other information is available at www.threnodyensemble.com.

Studio Time
For the last two weeks, local western swing band Red Meat has been hunkered down in Southern California, basking in the glow of the Safari Inn, which boasts one of the most charmingly tacky neon signs one could imagine. Which is probably the appropriate context for the recording of the group's third album, the follow-up to its fine, weighty slab of Americana, 1998's 13. Ex-Blaster Dave Alvin is once again handling the production chores and, to hear manager Owen Black tell it, pushing the band hard. "Dave is really challenging the band a lot more," says Black. "He's telling them, 'OK, now try this,' a lot." As for the sound, Black says he's hearing something more rock-based and "sophisticated, though that's probably the wrong word. It brings to mind Luther Vandross." Tentatively titled Alameda County Line, the album will likely be released at the end of the year on the band's own Ranchero Records, though Red Meat will likely shop the album around as well. As for the charm of the Safari Inn, bassist/ singer Jill Olson recently weighed in with this observation on the band's online tour diary (at www.redmeat.net): "There is a woman staying here at the Safari Inn who typifies the LA Woman. She is tan and very thin and has large, fake breasts. She looks like a Barbie doll. In comparison, I look like Ethel on 'I Love Lucy.' But that's OK. Ethel was funny."

 
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