The Year in Local Music
Gone? Are you kidding? Yes, the great jazz clubs of yesteryear no longer dot one thoroughfare in West Baltimore. And yes, the few jazz clubs still around occasionally struggle to make ends meet. But clubs are still around--I'm talking about you New Haven Lounge, Caton Castle, Maceo's Lounge, Arch Social Club, Harry's Impressions, and those other clubs and restaurants and coffee shops that welcome jazz weekly. They're still out there because the musicians are still here.
Such is Baltimore's recurring musical motif: Its vibrant present doesn't make a compelling story until it fades into the past. One reason is that the city's scene isn't going to hit you over the head to get your attention. One of the perks for artists living Charm City style is that people leave them alone to do what they want. You have to seek out the musical feasts in this town--they're there, every week--from blues to punk to rock to jazz to hip-hop to club to avant to cabaret to whateverthehell.
The best testimony to that fact are the local albums that came across my desk in the past year. From totally slick professional products to CD-Rs with handwritten track listings, Baltimore churned out more diverse music than the rain forest has bugs. B. Rich got things moving early in the year with his party anthem "Whoa Now," which was omnipresent on local DJ playlists. Mario stepped to the plate next and knocked out some bubble-gum soul pop that charted across the nation.
Local indie-rock and pop outfits also showed the rest of the contiguous 48 how it's done 'round here. Cex--aka City Paper scribe Rjyan Kidwell--spent a good deal of the year on the road, as did Love Life. The Oranges Band recently returned from a national tour, CMJ showcase, and recording stint for its upcoming full-length debut. And Baltimore's version of the power trio, Oxes, hit the road with metal juggernaut Isis and postpunk legend Wire--after spending almost two months in Europe.
Bands weren't the only ones making Mobtown known. Hampden-based Monitor Records kicked out solid disks from Oxes and Ink, and guitar behemoth Bellini. Jeremy DeVine's Temporary Residence imprint quietly relocated to Portland, Ore., recently, though it released so many disparate albums in the past year that I couldn't even keep up with them--and its Web site claims the new Sonna album will drop any day now. And the new, improved Sonar was named the Best New Club in America in the December issue of Urb magazine.
Jason Urick's once.twice festival brought cutting-edge electronic music to Baltimore, and he plans an even bigger event for 2003. And John Berndt found time between performing, helping to run the Red Room Collective and its weekly concert series, curating an art exhibit and sound installation for Artscape, and organizing the High Zero festival of improvised music to release Henry Flynt's New American Ethnic Music Volume 2: Spindizzy on his Recorded Music imprint, sparking a much deserved resurgence in Flynt's music that other labels are only just now trying to get in on.
In short, Baltimore spit out enough quality music in 2002 to make a couple of top 10 lists. So, yeah, the below list reflects one very particular and persnickety opinion. Fire off the vindictive ripostes at will.
Carly Ptak, Prepare Yourself (HereSee) This genre-defying outing from one-half of sound-alchemist duo Nautical Almanac may be one of the most unusual and unorthodox albums to come out of anywhere over the past 12 months. Basically a glitch album made without a computer, Ptak's bubbly beat science is formed entirely in real time on modified instruments powered by the hot-wired hard drive in her brain. While this sort of experiment has been done before, rarely has it achieved Prepare Yourself's almost sultry dance of melodicism and texture between the organic and the inorganic that is creepy, funny, ridiculous, and beautiful.
Flowers in the Attic, Flowers in the Attic (Human Conduct) FITA's self-titled debut is four youngsters making a Drunks With Guns racket, though they've probably never even heard of those mid-'80s terrorists. Nine nameless tracks sear the brainstem--well, the tracks may have names, but who knows. Some text accompanies the CD, but with all its talk of stabbing mother in the womb and taking life at the point of climax and smelling havoc on her dirty breath and stabstabstabstabstab, it's difficult to tell if they're song names, lyrics, or some mock shock tactic. Doesn't really matter. These tracks splinter into single-minded, high-octane instrument abuse that satisfies the soul as it bleeds the ears. Apparently, FITA now is an entirely new band, with only one member leftover from this lineup. If the new combo is doing anything this volatile, I've only got two words to offer: Fuck yes.
The Pupils, The Pupils (Dischord) As the Pupils, Lungfish guitarist Asa Osborne and vocalist/third eye Daniel Higgs concoct the sort of psychotic hypnotic product that reminds you of what Greil Marcus means when he trots out his "old, weird America" shtick to describe early folk music. The approach is simple--guitar plus voice, only a few chords used in each song--but the results are far from ordinary. More importantly, the Pupils play with a fiery raw conviction usually found in such pre-commercial music that, perhaps unintentionally, provides a visceral reminder that America's old, weird streak isn't only trapped in the dusty grooves of old 78s.
Educated Consumers, Aisle 2 (Modular Moods) A bit of a cheat since only one member of this hip-hop duo calls Charm City home, but when an album is this solid start to finish, you want to say it grew in your own backyard. College Park MC Seez Mics and Baltimore mix-master t.E.C.K!'s Aisle 2 bristles with a bouncing liveliness that combines the best of two worlds. It's an underground outing that skirts backpacker's bargain-basement sound mix, but this polished production doesn't swing with the bling of super-glossed floss.
Ink, Reagent Specs (Monitor) Bobbing and weaving at a clipped gait like a boxer dodging jabs on the deck of a ship, Ink's Reagent Specs is a deceptively off-kilter groove machine. This tightly composed album was pieced together out of material written and recorded on the fly, and the results are nigh stunning. How the band managed to craft seamlessly fluid songs in this manner--see "Stereo Eyes" and "Alger Hiss"--remains a mystery.
Vattel Cherry, Disciplines (self released) Technically a 2001 release (the hard-working jazzman Cherry didn't get around to getting it out until early 2002), Disciplines captures Cherry in two different trios--one with the phenomenal reeds player Jackie Blake and guitarist Ras Chris, the other with bass clarinetist John Dierker and violinist Nicole Cherry, the bassist's sister--performing four long-form improvisations each. It's a wealth of material to get through, but these free-jazz excursions are of the reflective rather than cosmic kind, the musicians exercising the double-CD's titular grace. Notes are placed and plucked with ruminative sensitivity, and these two odd trios bring out the best in these musicians--particularly Blake and Dierker, who should each get around to releasing albums as bandleaders sometime soon.
Fertile Ground, Seasons Change (Blackout) While today's neosoul is populated with vocalist superstars singing material written by bankable songwriting teams, backed by faceless musicians, and recorded by high-profile producers, Fertile Ground is a rare breed: the soul-jazz combo that functions like a band. Vocalist Navasha Daya may be the de facto focal point, but it's the backing jams that flow though Seasons Change like a heartbeat. And the band's versatility--You want a jazzy shake with some Afro-Cuban backbeat or silken ballad spiked with '70s brass? It's all good--and overall uplifting vibe elevates this sextet above the typical R&B's corny baby, baby, baby, baby, baby and it's-all-about-me confessionals.
Oxes, Oxxxes (Monitor) Though Oxes have yet to bottle the adrenaline rush that is their live show, Oxxxes captured the trio's taut tumult in wide-screen high-fidelity, making for the band's best-sounding recording yet. But it's not always clear what Oxes like best--the joke wrapped in a riddle hiding under a trick that can be their conceptual framework, or the blistering guitar and drum interplay that's more intricate and tightly wound than a golf ball's core. At some point those two idea streams may cross when the band's in the studio, and if they do, watch out.
Love Life, Here Is Night, Brother, Here the Birds Burn (Jagjaguwar) Enough with the Birthday Party/Nick Cave allusions already. While the dark prince is the most accessible musician draping baroque dark, sinister tales over baroque, sinister music, he hardly owns the sound. Love Life's sonic intensity admittedly has its precedents, but Birds bristles with enough original personality for the band to escape the derivative darts and start to be taken on its own merits, with the adenoidal "V" and "Joy" leading that charge.
Slow Jets, Good Morning, Stars (Morphius) Whimsical indie pop is by its very nature self-conscious and precious, and knowing that makes Stars even more delightful and disarming than it already is. Few guitar pop albums this pleasurable are as equally egoless. This trio comes across utterly uninterested in indie rock's fickle spotlight; it's more concerned with song craft, and the attention to detail shows. Stars breezes by in just over half an hour, brimming with short-story song snapshots that start off skipping and finish before you catch your breath.
Next 10, alphabetically: Charm City Suicides' Charm City Suicides 2 (Baths of Power), Circle 9's The War Between the States (self-released), Carl Grubbs' Reflections (self-released), James Twig Harper's Brainwave (Heresee), the Oranges Band's On TV (Lookout!), Mary Prankster's Tell Your Friends (Palace Coup), Radiant Pig's Daily Grace (self-released), B. Rich's 80 Dimes (Atlantic), Stars of the Dogon's Stars of the Dogon (Monitor), and Urban Ave 31's The Healing (UPIC).
The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.
The Year in News (12/9/2009)
The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)
Unnatural Wonders (7/7/2010)
Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions
That Nothing You Do (6/23/2010)
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything
All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper
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