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Lyricless Lounge

The NOVO Festival gathers up Baltimore's most speechless artists

Josh Sisk/Thrill Jockey
Jason Urick writes songs without words, thank you very much.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 2/24/2010

The NOVO Festival

Windup Space, March 2-6

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When's the last time you described a band as "instrumental"--as in, the first thing that comes to mind about whatever you're listening to? Not like a band on the radio--where, yes, being instrumental would actually be strange--but a blog or indie band, or generally a band or artist that-people-are-really-into-this-month, or just music that isn't in heavy radio rotation. Odds are, it's probably not the first thing you think of. And, as a classification, it's even rather silly and arbitrary. Plenty of genres out there just don't make sense with a vocalist--free jazz or techno or ambient drone music.

The point is that vocals-free music is not at all a suggestion of what the band is going to be, as grouping anything by what it is not would result. You'd get all kinds of music, too, if you cast the die according to which bands wear hats. So, on first glance, it makes for an odd concept to arrange a festival around. Indeed, this week's NOVO Festival--NOVO = "no vocals," OK?--casts a wide net across Baltimore's music communities: free jazz, postrock, jazz, ambient laptop music, bit-pop, broad avant-garde collaboration. An upshot is that it's a still-too-rare lineup of music that crosses not only stylistic but idealistic lines as well.

But there's more to the festival than that. It pushes you into thinking about what vocals mean in music. Are there rules for what can and can't have a human voice? Well, no, of course. The best music out there delights in playing with the rules. Holding a festival about what something isn't becomes, in a very real sense, about that same thing that's absent. Vocals--it's right there in the name. Sort of.

The sheer abstraction of some music makes it an uncomfortable location for a live human vocalist. Look at Jason Urick, creator of slowly rotating, meditative sonic cloudforms. Part of the feat of Urick's music is not fighting against its own laptop-ness, but feeding on it, going whole hog into the alien electronic landscape. It expresses a mood, certainly, but one that feels inhuman, softly industrial.

Asked to imagine his music with a vocalist, Urick's surprisingly quick with an answer. "In an ideal world I would love to have Dagmar Krause from Slapp Happy, Al Johnson from U.S. Maple, or Julie Tippetts," he writes in an e-mail. "In a more realistic world, it would be cool to do something with Victoria from Beach House, Katrina from Celebration, or Bob from Small Sur. I've never had the mindset to write lyrics, which is probably a good part of the reason I've never really worked with vocals."

Rock music is one of the few places you'd see "instrumental" dished as a qualifier on any kind of regular basis. For that you can thank a glut of bands in the 40 years or so making prog-qua-postrock: drama-heavy, usually instrumental music that makes heavy nods to improv, jazz, and, loosely, classical. And Baltimore has quite the club of postrock enthusiasts, many of whom round out the lineup of the NOVO fest.

We Used to Be Family skips many of the genre's by-now clichés of doomy self-seriousness in shambolic lo-fi pieces (such as "Stop That Shit" and "Choco Taco") of scorched cello, glimmering guitar duels, horn, and, of course, no vocals.

In fact, postrock in general tends to go a bit off the rails when vocals are introduced--like real, front-and-center lyrical vocals--turning from dramatic to overwrought right quick. Drummer Brian Litz assures that, no, We Used to Be Family wouldn't be heading down that gloomy road. "Knowing myself and the people in our band, [we'd be] making the lyrics form something stupid like an acrostic poem about beer and pizza that spells out 'your mother,'" he writes in an e-mail.

How about music that's just too bombastic for a vocalist? Microkingdom, the Baltimore power duo of Marc Miller (of Oxes fame) and Will Redman (Baltimore jazz man-about-town), marry noise-rock and jazz anarchy to results that are just plain fun, a propulsive and breathless tangle of unclassifiable sound. The duo's ideal vocal pairing? "Tracy Morgan," Redman says via e-mail. "Because our music is like comedy that you dance at." Fair enough.

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