Tuesday, July 24, 2007

NYC Radio: Jack Hits the Road

Hot on the heels of the two mouths who spewed an endless stream of dull, adolescent conversation and puerile sex humor, recently departed from WXRK, the unloved and in fact nonexistent "Jack" has hightailed it out of town, apparently back to Canada from which "he" was imported, duty-free. For those of you who are not NYC listeners (in all probability a highly favored status right now), "Jack" was the pre-recorded personality with the puerile, adolescent attitude (anyone notice a pattern here?) who would periodically interrupt WCBS's jukebox format with some snide remark, often about alleged skeptics regarding about CBS's format, and then, with equally annoying attitude, intone, "Jack-FM - playing what we want". Figure Napolean Dynamite after DJ lessons; that's about how this came across. Raise your hand if you thought it would last.

Going back a few decades, CBS-FM was once one of NYC's premier prog-pop radio stations, playing everything from the Moody Blues and Jethro Tull to Carol King and Elton John, but bringing consistent taste as well as quality to NY radio. There were more experimental formats - WXLR, if I recall, was one - but this was a station no reasonable music lover could complain about. At some point, CBS switched to an Oldies format, about which all that can be said is that "Oldies" never means a really creative sampling of older songs, but rather an attempt to mine nostalgia for well-known hits. This is necessarily an uneven format, since hits are of uneven quality. At some point around the turn of the millenium the format deteriorated further, and the selection of hits was reduced to early Motown with a few Beatles songs or other superhits thrown in. This format is what Jack replaced.

It is hardly surprising that Jack did not catch on, and in fact reduced CBS's listenership (and advertising revenue) significantly. But it is interesting to consider why. I suspect it was a nearly total disconnect between the music selection and
the impersonal, mechanized, phony-DJ-with-attitude idea (which according to the Times was supposed to make someone think of an iPod Shuffle - as if that is really a rationale for a radio format). But the music selection, though far from exemplary, was much better than the parade of Motown hits, and indeed much better than the wider Oldies format of yesteryear. "Jack" actually pulled from a much wider playlist than any other oldies or classics format, and had a predilection for some groups that I feel are grossly underplayed in such formats compared to their quality, such as Steely Dan or The Fixx. "Jack" did not limit the selection to major hits, though most of the tunes were at least vaguely familiar. "He" had a disposition towards crisp, catchy tunes with hooks, but that left him very wide latitude to pick and choose. Not that there wasn't repetition; and indeed one could still detect a bit too much of "Hotel California" and the like, as if we did not hear enough of that incredibly tired stuff from the "classic rock" (or is it "Clearchannel rock"?) guys at 104.3. There was also a perhaps commercially wise but musically dubious effort to stick to early-80's disco on the weekend.

All that said, there was something extremely refreshing about the "playing what we want" idea. Playlists are exactly what is wrong with rock radio, be it contemporary pop (100.3), classic rock, country or just about any other format. Jack was a great experiment in widening the playlist so much that it almost disappeared. K-Rock, even with their all-chatter format on weekdays, actually experimented on the weekends with a very interesting contemporary mix.
That has now been quieted, along with the talking emptyheads, and the station has gone to an extremely careful and repetitious selection of new stuff that is even more conservative than their earlier hard rock format.
And for CBS-FM, it is now Back to the Playlist: Oldies, slightly updated but still tired. And so ends a brief and occasionally interesting era of sort-of free form rock radio in NYC.

A few NY-area college stations still dare to spin "what they want" at certain hours; but
with their limited reach, they provide few opportunities for quality or exploratory programming. WFUV, which at some point had potential as a folk/acoustic station, long ago went commercial, limiting its exposure of new artists and focusing on already successful, and largely electric, acts to the point of becoming nearly indistinguishable from various "light rock" stations. WKCR gives us mainly jazz and some bluegrass and world music. I believe the nearest experimental rock station is Seton Hall's WSOU in Orange, NJ, though I can't get reception in Brooklyn; Fairleigh Dickinson's WFDU also provides some interest at the low end of the dial if you can get it. Other than that, it is pretty much a complete Radio Wasteland.

Almost. Strangely enough, it is 104.3 at night, with it's "Out of the Box" and "Underground Garage" shows, that still holds a few cutting edge cards now, as unbearable and stultifying as its daytime format is. That is something, but it ain't enough. What we need here is three things that we're not very likely to get, at least in a 24-hour station. One is a no-holds-barred experimental rock station that will give us everything from the latest progressive rock, in its various guises (see my previous post on the Book of Knots concert), to the more worthy alt-country happenings, to various interesting indie releases. Call this one WIND. And no, I don't mean Indiana. The second is a station that mines rock history for its 10,000's of extremely high quality but vastly underplayed cuts, be it from well known bands like Pink Floyd (when was the last time you heard "Atom Heart Mother" or "Astronomy Domine" on the radio?) to barely remembered groups like Family (their album Fearless is one of my favorite pieces of vinyl), from 60's garage bands (heard Bubble Puppy's "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" recently?) to some of the ingenious but rarely played cuts from contemporary groups like the Meat Puppets, Lemonheads, or Spoon. I could spin brilliant but virtually unplayed cuts by 10CC, Nektar and The Fixx for a couple of days without repeating anything. Spread that over half a century of rock history and you've got an almost endless supply of brilliant music, none of which has been overplayed by the 104.3 DJ's. Call this station WFRE. That's free, and without the attitude, Jack.

The third is a station that actually has some deep relationship to this country's musical traditions (other than jazz, which thankfully is actually represented in a couple of reasonable formats). I mean a station for which "country" means Hank WIlliams and Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and Johnny Cash and people who are their direct musical descendants. A station for which "folk" means Woody and Huddie and Pete and Bill (Staines - too bad I have to add that, he's fully their equal), and which plays some of the hundreds of high quality CD's released every year by acoustic musicians who look to them for inspiration. And which isn't afraid to play a scratchy old Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Willie McTell recording, or one by the host of worthy blues pickers who keep the tradition alive. Call this one WACU. Acoustic in spirit at least, because electronically amplified instruments are a kind of power center whose imperialistic tendencies we must resist, even if we love it as one form of expression.

For these stations to exist, I think the only hope is for some billionaire who actually cares about American music to buy out some media monopoly and play the stuff at a loss. Because one thing is clear: be it rock, country, or blues, what sells is obviously an extremely narrow spectrum of music that is constantly hammered into the heads of radio audiences through top-20 playlists and video channels. And that is a poor comment on us and our cultural bearings. A little paternalism can be a good thing, sometimes. Just give us some decent radio stations. The attitude needed to hit the road, but not the free format.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Prog Blog: Book of Knots at the Blender Theater

Lately the musical Monk and his friends have been exchanging views on the meaning of "progressive rock". The importance of this sub-genre of rock is adequately demonstrated by the fact that of all the uses of "progressive", only this one gets to be called just "prog", as if the social force of the music trapped the term and held it up as a prize. And the philosophical interest it has is like a model of the problem in philosophy of art in general: everyone thinks they know how to use it, but nobody knows how to define it. Which leads to the occasional battle of words: "that's not prog!". "Yes it is!". That's not art. Yes it is. You get the picture.

One thing most people agree on is that certain groups, or should I say groups of groups, constitute the paradigm or core cases of prog. Most of these bands hail from the early 1970's, though many can trace their origins as far back as the mid-60's. One contingent consists of groups which delighted the college crowd in the 70's, like Yes, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd, ELP, Nektar, Klaatu and Gentle Giant. Then there is a frankly eclectic gang of lesser lights (including the so-called
"Canterbury" groups) consisting of such names as Caravan, Hatfield and the North, Van der Graf Generator, Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream and several others known mainly to connoisseurs. And there are the contemporary "prog" (or "neo-prog") groups like Dream Theatre, Porcupine Tree, Marillion and a number of Italian groups.

Yet even this - a mere sprinkling of the names who have been mentioned by one expert source or another as prog groups - overstates the amount of agreement. For example, in The Billboard Guide to Progressive Music, Bradley Smith offers numerous other names in his "canonic" top 100 prog recordings, but does not include a single album by Gentle Giant (most prog fans would stop speaking to him), ELP (most prog fans would have him drawn and quartered) or Nektar (which personally irritates me more than the other omissions). Genesis, and another leading light of prog, Renaissance, are represented only by live albums (what was he thinking/drinking? prog is the paradigmatic studio music). And the fights go way beyond this: Is Supertramp a prog or merely a pop group? How about David Bowie? What is Led Zeppelin's relationship to prog? What about Rush (I shudder, but some people consider them an essential prog band)? How important/influential are the numerous proggish bands from Germany, Italy and other non-English-speaking countries? Is Frank Zappa a prog artist or merely a quirky composer with as many different styles as albums? Is the contmporary prog-metal scene really prog or just very technical noise? Is psychedelic rock a form of prog, or prog a form of psych, or neither? Is prog a classification of bands, albums, songs, styles, or all or none of the above? The issues go on and on. And to judge from the literature on prog, of which there is a substantial amount (of extremely uneven quality) most participants are talking right past each other. Definitions of the genre fly through the air with the greatest of ease, all subject to easy refutation by simply pointing to a generally recognized prog group that doesn't clearly meet it, or a bunch of clearly non-prog groups that do. The various talking heads (not the group, who are not prog, but someone will mention them eventually...) do not usually address one another's opinions or engage philosophically with other views, but merely offer their personal visions of the genre. (For one very sane definition and list of key recordings see this article. Full disclosure: the author of the article, Ian Alterman, is not unrelated to one of parrot's cousin's grandmother's children, and the site is operated by our frequent musical correspondent and acquaintance, Dusty Wright. Anyway I don't completely agree with the definition or album selections, but I think they capture a standard and venerable view of the nature of prog.)

Rest assured, I am not going to settle any of this here. But the context is important, for on Friday night, a parrot looking for some spontaneous solution to the what-do-I-do-tonight dilemma was faced with at least two choices for delving into the music and escaping the email debates. Ozric Tentacles, a beknighted neo-prog group that has been doing its multimedia thing for a couple of decades, was scheduled to play at the Highline Ballroom; and across town, a new group of self-consciously arty rockers who call themselves Book of Knots was on the bill at the Blender Theater at Gramercy, a venue which (as the Gramercy Theater) recently did service as the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art. Eeny meeny miney mo.... not having enough toes, Parrot called his sibling, a parakeet who has written for ProgArchives.Com, one of the main prog rock sites in cyberspace. Parakeet was familiar with one highly rated Ozric album, which he considered unimpressive; and alerted me to the fact that they are almost completely instrumental, which is not bad, but I was not in the mood for a post-Tangerine Dream experience. Besides the
buzz around Book of Knots was much more interesting: possibly a one-time-only performance by a collection of art rock types who were members of other bands, (Sleepytime Gorrila Museum, Pere Ubu, Skeleton Key, etc.) Moreover they were to be joined by various other known entities such as John Langford of The Mekons, who played an opening set, as did Carla Bozulich, who also appeared as lead vocalist in Book of Knots opening number. The group has just released its second album, Traineater, and may or may not continue as an ongoing entity, as the mood strikes them.

Now I will admit the parrot squawcked a bit when, after buying a ticket for an alleged 8:00 p.m. show, I discovered that Book of Knots was not going on until 11:00. (No warmup bands were listed in any of the announcements.) Bad as this was, what really infuriated me was the club policy of not allowing anyone to leave and come back. They give you a wristband if you want to order a drink, but they can't stamp your hand or something so you can re-enter? Obnoxious. I actually went to the ticket window and asked for my $22 back, to no avail. A chipmunk-faced young fan behind me chirped profoundly "Haven't you ever been to a rock concert before?" Hmmmm... haven't I seen Led Zeppelin four times? Haven't I played at CBGB's twice? Well, yes. Not to mention been to most of the major rock clubs in NYC several times. Mr. Monk Parrot reminded Mr. Chipmunk that he had had some 3 extra decades to collect nuts and seeds on the rock concert scene, but thanks for the input. (See, once in a while it helps to be older and wiser... like Owl, except she's not older...) But time went by rather quickly, with the warm-up sets and lots of newpapers to read. Before the Book of Knots went on I bought a can of Guinness. A sign above each of the three (3) bars at the Gramercy announces "one alcoholic drink per wristband". Does that mean one per bar? But I didn't notice anyone enforcing this by removing the wristbands after selling a drink. I can somewhat understand the sentiment, for I have seen a drunken Irishman pissing across the walls and sinks of a club bathroom like an out of control firehose (this at a Luka Bloom concert at Acme Underground, about when Chipmunk was learning to write) and have encountered a variety of unpleasantly inebriated individuals. I could maybe see a two drink limit, but one is a little ridiculous. Anyway, this can of Guinness ($7 with the tip) was completely flat, with an obviously broken carbonation device bouncing around at the bottom of the can. Parrot was not in a good mood. The place also had one 200-pound security guard to every five patrons, and closed off the entire balcony (the only available seating) for "VIP's and friends of the performers". They do have a kick-ass sound system and a pleasant lounge downstairs, which might or might not be enough to drag me back to this otherwise unfriendly venue.

Back to prog. Or are we? This is the question I was alluding to at the beginning. Here are a bunch of musicians who look and sound like artrock specialists. ProgArchives has an Artrock genre, but their top 100 albums of this genre include lots of Moody Blues, not to mention Rush, the former being as tonal and accessible as one can imagine, and the latter being merely annoying. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's Of Natural History is listed as one of the most popular albums on ProgArchives, but not as an artrock album. Prog is quintessentially the medium which allegedly lifted rock out of its dogmatic slumbers as a a mere form of entertainment and made it a genuine art form. Perhaps there are a hundred reasons to question this narrative, but it is a typical one, and it sometimes leads to prog being simply equated with artistic rock and roll. Prog is not written for dance halls; prog does not maintain standard beats or stick to basic blues progressions; prog often introduces unusual instruments, utilizes extended compositional forms, limits the use of improvisation with through-composed pieces or else extends it way beyond the confines of blues-based guitar breaks, and extensively manipulates sounds electronically. Prog was suppose to prove that rock is a form of art not inherently less complex or creative than classical music. All of which gives it a claim to being art rock pure and simple. In addition, prog lyrics are often as indecipherable as a Wallace Stevens poem, and the visions it produces, from apparently utopian to diabolically dystopian, are at least in some sense at odds with the contemporary social status quo, giving it some connection to not only modern poetry but progressive political views.

Nevertheless, the sounds which emerged from Book of Knots could arguably be called art rock, but not prog. Why? That is what is hard to say. When I got out of the concert I eventually ended up in a subway station, where I naturally applied the headphones and turned on my CD player (yes, I am one of the last people on earth without an iPod, though my CD player does do mp3's).
By coincidence, or maybe not, the disk was a live Gentle Giant album. By even better coincidence, the next song up was A Free Hand. Had I recorded part of the concert by mistake? Well, not exactly, but all the elements seemed to be there: technically complex and well-orchestrated lines that sometimes touched on atonality, noises of various sorts (electronic or otherwise), rhythms dissociated from their metrical foundation, and vocals integrated as one more instrument in the mix. The lyrics are slightly offbeat, with meanings hinted at rather than spelled out. How different was this from the concert?

Well, a little. Book of Knots utilizes prerecorded soundtracks and in general uses the spoken word to great effect; their compositions are powerful but sometimes schizophrenic, with the quiet tinkling of plucked autoharps and guitars strummed below the bridge suddenly interrupted by tritonal outbursts from the entire group.
Various string instruments are pulled in, more for their ability to produce a Webernesque texture than for melodic or harmonic uses. There was great beauty in many of these textures, and indeed in the unpredictable but usually very convincing vocal lines of these compositions (or dare I say "songs"?). All of this seemed to go beyond what Gentle Giant was doing, but not by much. Could it be that Gentle Giant is misclassified as a prog group and really belongs to a separate genre of art rock? I don't know. If you go this route you could end up casting early Pink Floyd and late King Crimson out of prog. Or, if you take the opposite tack, you could end up baptizing Zappa as a prog icon. I think what we have here is just a choice of linguistic paths: either you build out the artrock strands of prog and draw in groups like Book of Knots, which sound nothing remotely like Yes or later Pink Floyd, and call them prog; or you cut the thread where the symphonic aspects of prog trail off into noise and punk and atonality, and the textures go from the expansive synth/mellotron sound to industrial, aleatoric and elecronic. Either will do. Definitions merely reflect existing usage, as W.V.O. Quine pointed out long ago; they do not give you any sort of new information about a term, though they can serve as norms for using it once they are offered.

A few years ago I went to a "prog" concert at the Knitting Factory. There were three bands, can't remember their names unfortunately. One of them was not so different from Book of Knots, though not nearly as good. They seemed to mix aleatoric moments with more traditional ones, not unappealing but kind of an unnatural cross between the Paul Winter Consort and Jethro Tull. Another was so loud I had to leave - basically an extremely technical guitar player, backed by a bass as I recall. Other than the possibility of ear damage and another name on the Extremely Technical Guitar Player list I got nothing out of this set, but it did remind me that a great many heavy metal bands of the Metallica sort feature very technically accomplished players who seem to think that having the faculty of taste is a defect. Book of Knots loses little in volume compared to most of these bands, but to my ears
they are actually about music and not showmanship. Between their four or five guitarists, two fiddlers, numerous vocalists and percussionists, they manage to more or less consistently keep the attention on musical form and content and on the social content of the lyrics, and hardly even present technique for its own sake. Perhaps this should be part of the definition of prog, if definitions were at all useful here. Even with the guitar pyrotechnics of a Steve Howe or the drumming of a Phil Collins of the Shulman brothers' extraordinary technical facility, prog is decidely about the music.

What I could gather from most of the lyrics suggests that Book of Knots is currently oriented toward the industrial,
with a number of them sporting suits and hair styles that brought to mind the bourgeoisie of the 1930's. In an equally outrageous suggestion of civilization and etiquette, a program was produced for the concert, in which they indicate that their second album was intended as "a tribute to the American rust belt". It seemed oddly fitting for this collaboration of otherwise musically employed musicians that after their hour-long gig they thanked the audience, and excused themselves from doing any encores with the polite admission that "we don't know any more songs"! Not even a cover of Free Bird?

I do hope the group stays together, and does more concerts. While I did not find every moment of it pleasant, I could see this as a direction of sorts for rock that means something. I am not into noise. I do not like to attacked or annoyed, I like to be challenged. This was challenging but for the most part very enjoyable. I don't know how it translates to the recording, but I'm somewhat sorry I didn't buy a CD. From the experimental psychedelia of the 60's to My Bloody Valentine to contemporary art rock, some musicians have managed to tread a perilous course between complete alienation and pandering to popular taste. The best rock manages to push the boundaries while remaining enjoyable. Book of Knots pushes them very far but does not fall off the listening spectrum. That is an accomplishment, whether you call them prog, art, industrial, or something else.


I think it is safe to reveal that there was another reason I chose to see Book of Knots rather than Ozric Tentacles. The reason's name is Frank, and the Frank who is the reason is (I suppose) the person who runs Frank's Pizza. A shop you can miss if you blink on a slow walk, it is located right next to the Blender (or Gramercy), at 23rd and Lexington Ave. For something like 15 years it has been recognized as the real deal when it comes to New York pizza. I've been to dozens (at least) of pizza parlors. (Ever been to a pizza parlor, Chipmunk?) I've been to Di Fara's, the best pizza this side of the local pig sty (finally shut down by the Health Department, thank god, but the pizza was in a class by itself: a gooey mix of buffalo milk mozarella and homemade tomato sauce on a thin crust). Frank's I discovered about 8 years ago. They almost never reheat a slice: the slices fly out the door faster than he can cook 'em. You don't order toppings at Frank's; you can, of course, if you want to ruin the best slice of pizza south of Central Park, but restrain yourself. Your body will survive a day without broccoli, and besides, tomato sauce is supposed to be good for your prostate - if you have a prostate, that is. The sauce is the best, with a bit of a Latin twist; the cheese fresh and generous, the crust just thick enough. Do I sound like a commercial? Okay, then here goes: Frank's is the best candidate I know for successor to (the real, original) Ray's Pizza. Grab a slice or eight and tell me you disagree.