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Micro-East Collective in the race for space

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000

062099; Out of My Face (Umbrella)

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What should outer space sound like? Sonar echoes and rumbling rhythms, quoth Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. But in 1968, Stanley Kubrick (figuring that interstellar blips and bomps lack air to bounce off?) opted for György Ligeti's rhythmless, hovering Lux Aeterna to accent 2001: A Space Odyssey, and many thereafter have bandwagoned, from turn-of-the-'70s Tangerine Dream onward.

Though it uses 17 North Carolinians on mostly orchestral-type instruments instead of a few Krauts on synths 'n' cymbals, Micro-East Collective's 062099 (named for its recording date) tokes you back to 1971 and the slowly morphing mood of T. Dream's Alpha Centauri. The MEC slab's dominant composition, the 35-minute "Exploring the Metal Sphere," launches from the story of a spacecraft assigned to map the surface of the titular object, a perfectly smooth planet the size of Jupiter that's been discovered orbiting Beta Pictoris. For listeners, it's a mission worth undertaking at least once.

Giddily optimistic about the future of communism, the author of MEC's press release brags that the ensemble "foreshadows community orchestral music for the next century" in that all members share responsibility for direction and repertoire. All for one: Nothing on 062099 resembles a solo or even an identifiable melodic line. Instead, you hear swells, recessions, long sustains, scraped cymbals, as the musicians are cued to get louder, play a simple series of notes, modulate a whole tone up, things like that, generally avoiding dissonance. They're not prissy about the project; now and then you hear somebody cough or get up to take a leak. But the positive effect of the music -- a sense of wholeness and connection that settles in the diaphragm -- indicates that they know exactly how to take you on a satisfying textural voyage.

It's not a bit boring. In fact, for some reason I suddenly noticed while strapped in that I hadn't thought about sex for the first 28 minutes, which according to popular man-lore is some 150 times longer than average.

Recorded a few months after 062099, the new Out of My Face breaks the Micro-East experience into 12 more easily graspable hunks, a little noisier but no less focused. Ensemble percussionist Ian Davis' notes say the group references Cage, Braxton and George Crumb "whilst disobeying their instructions." Sounds like the players want to liberate themselves from traditional notions of music, then liberate themselves from the liberation. That implies they're actually more disciplined than their models, and the rigor pays off. It's easy to imagine that anyone could think up the kinds of structures they employ here: Everybody slide down like a car over a gentle cliff, crash into a tree and slide some more. Have a clarinet wander through a barnyard, now and then scaring chickens and ducks into a flutter. Build everything around a vibraphone­and­drum roll, with horns commenting. Maybe a lot of us could conceptualize as spunkily. But traveling between concept and music takes time and skill. And this is music. (www.umbrellarecordings.com)

Ode Music; Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 (Drag City)

Will Oldham began his music career with his protean Palace (Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers, et al.) project, and at first his muse seemed firmly planted on the postmodern back porch. His electro-acoustic take on Appalachian folk mixed archaic grammar and goofily offensive sexuality. He leavened the music's gloomy mood with mad cackles of joy. But soon it became evident that this was a guy afflicted with a Dylan complex. He changed aliases release-to-release (after a stint as Will Oldham, he now goes by Bonnie "Prince" Billy). For bandmates he looked to his own private Woodstock, playing with indie rockers and kin residing in his own boho stomping ground, Louisville, Kentucky. Here was a post-punker who had denied his love of the Band far too long. But sometimes one wondered about those mad cackles . . .

Country-folk-rock hasn't held the pop-culture spotlight for a long while, and, lacking constant illumination, Oldham's behavior often seemed more schizophrenic than mythic. It was no wonder that Oldham's first collection of singles and various odds and ends, Lost Blues, sounded like both a greatest-hits package and a hit-and-miss bootleg. It was also the first record that could claim to be representative of his varied output, serving up lightly drawn gems and raucous Southern rockers next to ill-advised experiments, live and tossed-off tracks next to meticulous, shimmering post cards from the beach. More postscript than traveling companion to Lost Blues, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 is best when representing Oldham's penchant for creepy minimalism. "Patience," "Take However Long You Want," "Gezundheit" and "Let the Wires Ring" rest uneasily on roughly sketched acoustic guitar and his crackling voice, like the last sad notes out of a man fading into misery, obscurity or sleep. Sustaining such fragility
isn't easy, and these songs are oddly gorgeous.

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