Friday, December 21, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Seven

13 Exploding Star Orchestra, We Are All From Somewhere Else

The aforementioned Rob Mazurek quit the Chicago scene for a while, heading to Brazil where he spent some time recording the sounds of electric eels. Seriously. Then he convened a big band featuring a ton of great players, including guitarist Jeff Parker, ex-Tortoise members John Herndon and John McEntire (in whose studio the album was recorded), trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Jason Ajemian, and others. He handed them a score for two extended suites (“Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time” and “Cosmic Tomes for Sleepwalking Lovers”) and one interlude (“Black Sun”), and together they cut a fantastic record.

It’s avant-big band music; think a less carnivalesque, less Ellington-obsessed version of Mingus Ah Um, or a not-quite-so academic-sounding Jazz in the Space Age. We Are All… overflows with vibes, synthesizers, strings, horns, and yes, electric eels (they sound like electronically tweaked strings). It is, frankly, hard to describe, but it is brash, joyous, exuberant, exciting, soothing, and redolent of salt and wind, waves and sun. It sounds like the Black & White Ball being held at the Shedd Aquarium. And what’s really surprising, given the roster of improv scenesters on hand, is that the standout performance is delivered by flutist Nicole Mitchell. And the eels, obviously.

12 Chromatics, Night Drive / In the City 12” / Various Artists, After Dark

Chilly, aloof and spare: this is Italo-Disco, an unlikely candidate for a resurgence, and yet here is New Jersey-based label Italians Do It Better doing just that. Chromatics hail from the Pacific Northwest, but they might as well have come up in the streets of Milan, these vacant-eyed glamour children with stunning wardrobes and empty souls. They are currently the poster children for the label and the sound (though Glass Candy, also on the After Dark compilation, are fixing to give them some competition), hitting a successive pair of high marks, first with the In the City single and then the Night Drive full length. Whether the late night travelogue of the title track, or the bang on cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” nobody did cool/cold, dance/dread and glamour/gloom as convincingly as did Chromatics in 2007. Detached vocals, banks of synth, canned strings, plucky guitar and vinyl-like effects all contributed to the illusion. Don’t go searching for the substance; it’s not there. Better just to get your fill of the style before the luster fades.

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