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Ponytail, "Themes For Cops"

Samuli Tanner has a suspicious and inscrutable way of doing things.  Most notably, the band name, album title, and cover art here are all suggestive of ugly, misanthropic scuzz rock (definitely not oddball hip-hop influenced experimentalism from Finland).  Then the album opens fairly straightforwardly (for about 30 seconds anyway), before quickly plunging down a rabbit hole of splintered surrealism.  Also, this album is only one very long track, unless you buy it from him on tour, in which case it is 27 extremely short ones.  Many of the tracks have police-themed titles, but I'll be damned if I can decipher any sort of thematic relation to the music.  I am decidedly flummoxed.

 

NB Research Digest

Ponytail is the solo project of one-half of Helsinki dubstep team Clouds (I thought I had never heard of them, but then I recognized their track from the most recent DJ/Rupture album).  Clouds are cleanly produced, structured, melodic, and heavily indebted to Jamaican music.  Ponytail is conspicuously none of those things.  This is likely due to Tanner's singularly eclectic inspirations: Charles Mingus, punk, and proto-industrial provocateur Pekka Airaksinen.  And, of course, Finnish agrarian folk music (which Tanner's family has been involved with for many generations).  Being a particularly ingenious and creative fellow, Tanner does not overtly borrow anything from the aforementioned artists; he merely plunders their aesthetic philosophies and applies them to his own ideas.

Themes For Cops is a pleasing and compellingly strange album, but it is very difficult to describe a constantly shifting and fragmented 34-minute song.  The only consistency is deep bass and dubstep/downtempo hip-hop drums.  Only the fact that they are there, of course. The actual rhythm/bass line tends to segue into something new every minute or so.  Sometimes it is danceable and locks into extremely ephemeral groove, but more often it sounds like I am listening to a dubstep tape that has been through a washing machine.  Fuzziness, odd wavering, warping, and off-kilter lurching abounds.  Not in a bad way though- more in a Boards of Canada/William Basinski kind of way.  

Tanner's musical palette is, to make a gross understatement, rather varied.  Electronic glitchery coexists with violins, accordions, lounge-y farfisa, neo-classical piano, and pop song snippets.  Making experimental music with a wide array of source material is not especially unique at this point, but Tanner does it in a particularly unclumsy fashion and largely avoids self-indulgence (and conclusively avoids pandering to listeners).  As alluded to earlier, nothing sticks around long enough to achieve any sort of lasting beauty or funkiness—Themes is more like fever dream in which a torrent of striking moments (ranging from sublime to crazy to unsettling) deluges the listener.  It is unlikely that anyone will ever say that this is their favorite album or anything, but Ponytail certainly will elicit much more inner commentary like "Hmm. that sounds cool.," "Was that snippet from a freaking Ladyhawke song?!?!!," or "Woah- what the hell is going on here?!?" than his contemporaries.

Themes For Cops compellingly makes the argument that you can get away with just about anything if you throw in some drums.  Many of the ruined and corrupted sounds here would be perfectly at home on a much more listener-hostile and uncompromisingly harsh album, but are rendered strangely palatable in this context.  Tanner has made a surprising and engrossing album- I vastly prefer this to his parent band.

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Review of the Day

EYVIND KANG, "VIRGINAL CO-ORDINATES
Ipecac
As a violinist, Eyvind Kang has played with the likes of Sun City Girls, Bill Frisell, Secret Chiefs 3, Laurie Anderson and many others. As a composer, Kang has carved out a unique position for himself, releasing a series of studio albums drawing on his concept of the NADE (a concept which I won't attempt to explain here, mostly because I don't understand it). The albums combined elements of disparate ethnic music forms with esoteric spiritual ideas, and sudden, unexpected transitions into fully-formed pop songs or long passages of pastoral ambience. I've liked most of his work that I've heard so far (especially 2000's The Story of Iceland), but it appears that Kang has outdone himself with Virginal Co-ordinates, a beautiful recording of an ambitious live performance staged in Italy last year. Kang composes and conducts a 16 piece ensemble—called the Playground—augmented by himself on violin and several guest musicians, including Mike Patton on voice and electronics, Michael White (former Sun Ra Arkestra violinist) and Tim Young on electric guitar. I suppose the inclusion of Mike Patton is the only reason this album has surfaced on Ipecac Recordings, seeing as it's otherwise entirely different from the label's usual output. It's quite an impressive work, split up into ten movements of varying lengths, each gently joined to the next with gossamer instrumental threads. The title of the work evokes images of untouched glacial expanses, secluded valleys and mountains untouched and unadulterated by the progress of man—Virginal Co-ordinates in which the mind and spirit are free to find connections with nature beyond those limited ideas inculcated in us by the artificial strictures of society. The album artwork is pure white, the color of virginity, with a white cobra in the center, appearing poised to strike. The cobra is a perfect symbol for the current of hidden menace that runs through much of the music. There is a spiritual yearning throughout, but it is often joined by vibrating undercurrents of dread. "I am the Dead" transforms into a full-blow orchestral pop song with echoes of Brian Wilson, but its lyrics presage the death and rebirth rituals of the Bardo Todol. Mike Patton's voice lends an ethereal beauty to certain passages, and Walter Zianetti steals the show with his acoustic guitar solo on "Taksim." Elements of Spanish guitar, Indian raga, tonal Oriental scales, film soundtracks and American pastoral symphonies all weave their way into Kang's work, culminating in the majesty of the title track, a magnificent, shape-shifting wall of orchestral noise in which musical phrases from earlier movements are recycled and juxtaposed to hypnotic effect. At 73 minutes, Virginal Co-ordinates is never boring, which is something that cannot often be said for works of modern composition. In fact, its appeal goes well beyond the usual modern classical crowd, and I imagine it would be enjoyed by anyone interested in the transformative and magical possibilities of music. 

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