THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 080
Broke my streak last week when I didn't publish a new edition of the newsletter. As I said on Twitter, work had painted me into a corner and there were some other issues happening here at the house that needed my attention. Plus I had to make sure Bob Odenkirk pointed at my brother at least once. Important stuff.
Now that I'm back, it's time to once again harangue you about becoming a premium subscriber. It only costs you $5 a month but the benefits... oh the benefits make that amount worth it and then some. In addition to getting some fine recommendations of films / TV to watch and articles to read, I offer up a free download of some interesting music each week. A bit ago it was a collection of experimental music from China. And more recently it was live recordings of Hüsker Dü, Iggy Pop (w/ Bowie on keys), and Patti Smith. This coming Monday: Talking Heads, live in Chicago 1978. If that weren't enough, I also give away free stuff to one lucky subscriber each month — a package of goodness catered to their tastes and interests. What does that look like? Check this. Ain't that worth at least the cost of a large fancy coffee drink every month? I should say so. Click here if you want to get it on the fun.
Please dig in below to find my interview with an incredible Canadian artist and reviews of two very cool reissues. See you on the other side.
I'm always going to be drawn to music that, at least at the beginnings, unsettles me in some way. And nothing that I've heard so far this year has rattled me more than Crease, the debut full-length by Montreal artist Kee Avil. Released this week through Constellation Records, the album feels entirely alien even when I find myself connecting the music's tendrils to the work of other artists (Jenny Hval, Jandek) and movements (ambient folk, glitchy electronic experimentation). I envision it as the work of a woman in a post-apocalyptic city keeping herself and her fellow survivors sane by writing and performing songs using what technology she can jerry rig from the ruins and using what melodies she can remember from the before times. The mood of this brilliant album is amplified by the discomforting beauty of the videos Kee Avil has created to promote it and Crease's cover art. Both the album and the artist who created it demand a response; adore them completely or get them as far away from you as possible.
I'd like to get a sense of your background as a musician and what led you to create the music you are making. Did you grow up in a particularly musical household? If so, what were you listening to growing up? And if not, when did music become an important part of your life?
Music became an important part of my life once I discovered improvisation, and the avenue of making music free of expectations, open to risk and failure.
What was the first artist that you felt was really your own and that you felt most connected to? What was it about their work that resonated with you?
That’s a tough question so I’ll break it down to focus on Crease. I would always find myself going back to the music of Juana Molina through the writing process. Something about her song structures is captivating, the layers and how sections seamlessly blend. I also love how she uses the voice as an instrument, rhythmic, melodic, I don’t understand the lyrics and yet a whole imagery is conjured. Her latest album Halo was also a huge inspiration on the mixing of the record, it looks like paint behind thrown at a smooth, black tapestry.
What was your first instrument? What drew you to it?
My first instrument was the guitar, I’m not sure what drew me to it, maybe that I just had one laying around.
When did you decide you wanted to make your own music? Were the sounds you were making early on similar to what we've heard so far on your EP and Crease or were there evolutionary steps you took first to get there?
The EP and Crease come out of a period where I was only improvising, and trying to destroy the guitar. They were an attempt to take that energy, approach and structure it into songs. I started singing. I had no idea how to write a song, and I still don’t. I glued ideas together and copied other people until something made sense. Eventually, patterns emerge, but improvisation remains present throughout.
Where do songs originate for you? Is it a melody or a mood that sets you off on the path or a lyric that you have written?
Often, a song starts as an exercise - can I make something that feels like this emotion, situation, story? For ‘thinkstill’ (on the EP), I tried to recreate the sensation of a warm summer afternoon, sitting in a room, with a ray of sunlight illuminating the dust particles floating, the air heavy and still, staring. Some songs are entirely made of recorded, improvised lines, that I then learn how to perform and re-record. Sometimes, the ideas remain unchanged, taken straight from improvisation and becoming a composition - other times it takes a lot of sculpting to make them work. But for this album, I had to believe that any idea can be a good idea, once shaped.
What did your co-producer Zachary Scholes bring to this project? Was it helpful / important for you to have an extra set of hands and ears in the studio?
Zach’s approach, instincts and background are different from mine. He was necessary in order to bridge the gap between the weird and the familiar. He definitely pushed me to explore certain avenues that I wouldn’t have reached on my own. He also pushed me in my performance of the music, which I think was really helpful to reach this type of clarity. He’s so creative and also super knowledgeable with all the technical sides related to recording and mixing, so really the record would not sound like this without him.
Your vocal delivery on both of your releases so far fascinates me to no end. I get a feeling akin to hearing a computer or AI learning how to speak and communicate. Was this approach to singing something that felt necessary to complete the feel of the music? Or is this style simply what comes naturally to you?
That’s hilarious, and somehow accurate. The sound and delivery of the vocals was very much crafted and intentional, some kind of dynamic but relaxed staccato. We worked on that a lot in the studio…it was a huge process to discover how to do them. It’s tricky with the voice because since I’m not a trained singer, there’s a limited number of times I can do something until I just have to stop for the day. On some songs, the singing came more naturally, for example "saf" - "And I" - "I too, bury."
The artwork for Crease and the videos you've made so far are such an important element of the overall aesthetic of this project. How did the visual aspect of this album develop?
I knew Ariane Paradis (the mask artist for the artwork) for a few years, and her work had always stuck in my mind, a nice blend of beautiful and creepy. I wanted an imagery that wouldn’t conceal but warp, that balanced the creepiness with something calm, still. I was very inspired by an image by Tim Walker, of Tilda Swinton - monochromatic, a strange pale darkness that was somehow bright. It quickly became important for me to establish the color palette for the album - mint, pastel green.
Feel like I should ask where the name of this project came from... if you don't mind explaining.
The name is based on an insect that doesn’t exist.
Montreal has been the home base of a number of amazing experimental artists like yourself. Is there anything particular about the city that you feel helps foment more far-reaching sounds and musical ideas?
It’s a small, big city - ideas can float around easily.
You have a show coming up in April opening for Stephen O'Malley and, according to your Bandcamp, a show in August in Germany. Do you have a sense of what the rest of 2022 looks like for you and this project?
Not really. I wish I had a better plan, hopefully some touring.
What are you listening to / reading / watching these days?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Alva Noto, reading articles on an ancient Greek plague, and watching my screen too much.
Fields - Feeling Free: The Complete Recordings 1971-1973 / Blossom Toes: If Only For A Moment (Esoteric Recordings)
Dusting off and polishing once forgotten albums from the ash heap of recorded music history is less a cottage industry and more an overgrown community garden where dozens of labels try to attract us collector drones with colorful blooms and thick foliage. It's enriching to the soul and body but murder on the bank account. To navigate this terrain and not send yourself into debt, it's best to narrow your focus on a sound or a trusted label. I've found great confidence in the work of Esoteric Recordings, a sub-label of distributor / label group Cherry Red run by Mark Powell that specializes in two wonderful musical drugs that have long enhanced one another: psychedelia and prog rock. The material Powell and his imprint have mined in recent years has been dazzling, like reissues of work by the Irish group Fruupp and the late Mick Farren's ensemble The Deviants.
Two recent re-releases from the label perfectly represent the era when the loosey-goosey, mind expanding whirl of psych-rock was giving way to the jazzier complications of prog. If Only For A Moment, the second album by the wonderfully and nonsensically named ensemble Blossom Toes, feels like the perfect transition point from one era to the other. The group's first album We Are Ever So Clean (also re-released this year in expanded form by Esoteric) was a Floydian phantasmagoria of silly vocalizing and sweet shop-fueled tunes like "The Intrepid Balloonists Handbook, Volume 1" and "I'll Be Late For Tea." In less than two years, the Toes found that liquor was quicker, shifting to a heavier, more hirsute sound a la Hawkwind for their final studio effort. The new movement by the quartet is gangly and awkward at times, particularly their good faith efforts at political commentary on "Peace Loving Man" and "Billy Boo the Gunman," but the nicely balanced guitar work from Brian Godding and Jim Cregan, and the heavier hand of new drummer Barry Reeves keeps every moment of this album on track. This triple-CD set from Esoteric fleshes out the final chapter of this band's story with a collection of decent-sounding live tracks that shows off the band's ability to engage in trance-inducing jams and a collection of demos from the time.
One crucial element of prog that was a hold over from psych rock era was a sense of whimsy. That's evident within the work of Fields, a short-lived project led by former Rare Bird keyboardist Graham Field. The band recorded only one official self-titled album, scuttling sessions for a second when their label pulled the plug on them, but throughout each heavily braided composition, a playfulness sneaks out. "Three Minstrels" is a daisy chain of talking drums and maypole spinning rhythms from drummer Andy McCulloch and Field's flowy organ work on the wonderful instrumental "Slow Susan" sounds like a carousel methodically coming to life after months of dormancy. Fields' music became a touch more serious in the process of making a follow up to Fields in part due to the arrival of Frank Farrell who took over as the group's singer / guitarist following Alan Barry's departure. Farrell lent a slightly grittier tone that worked nicely with the more ambitious sound Field was creating for the band that included more ambient sound like the sirens that open "Let Her Sleep" or an airplane's arrival that introduces "Wonder Why" and lyrics that dealt more with internal agonies and existential concerns. Listening to the music that came out of those aborted sessions only amplifies the disappointment over the group's dissolution. To hear this trio go deeper down the prog rock wormhole could have yielded some fascinating work.
Are you sick of my words yet? If not, you might want to read the feature I wrote about 415 Records (the home of Translator and Romeo Void) and Bill Kopp's book on the label? Or my exegesis on Chuck Berry's lone #1 pop hit - aka "My Ding-a-Ling"? Or maybe my preview of tomorrow night's Hats & Heels performance, which features the premiere of a disorienting new work by friend of the newsletter Anna Heflin? Or maybe you just want to be done with me and get on with your weekend. I completely understand.
Thanks for reading any part of this. Questions / queries / queests are welcome and encouraged. Back on Monday for the premium folk and next week for the rest of y'all. Do no harm. Take no shit.
RIP Emilio Delgado, Ron Miles, and Joni James.
Artwork for this edition is by Heidi Hahn, whose exhibition Soft Joy is on display at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles through April 9. Kee Avil photo by Lawrence Fafard.