Story of Junk

Taking a primitive tack that's more DIY than any punk band's, Skip La Plante's collective Music for Homemade Instruments recycles the city's garbage for its annual concert series, which has been held in La Plante's Bowery loft since 1976. An eight-piece group of middle-agers banging on pans and boards and blowing on tubes and bottles fresh from the dumpster— seems like a damn farce, and it is. But there's also a landfill of know-how behind it, all in the lowbrow/highbrow tradition of P.D.Q. Bach and Spike Jones.

Fresh from an Avery Fisher Hall exhibit, MFHI bucked the usual "here's our art, eat it up" attitude for the crowd of 40 or so (including many precocious tykes), with each of the composers explaining their pieces and the instruments. David Simons's Harry Partch tribute ("This Hoary Perch") featured "string stretchers" (hinged wood strung with wire) and sounded like a crazed ukulele troop playing Sousa. His "The Collective Chok" had a chorus of label-intact soda and juice bottles tooting. John Bertles's solo barrage, "Critical Mess," deployed turntable chimes, a toy car equipped with microphone, and alarm clocks. His other piece, "The Camel's Back," was introduced as "the first virtuoso piece for soda straws." For Jody Kruskal's "Latex," huge balloons were scraped and deflated, and later distributed for audience participation. Lisa Karrer's "My Cousin Paula," a spoken-word account of a nightmarish boating accident, was punctuated by spinning, droning windwands (wood strung with rubber bands). La Plante contributed "Cycle for Blown Instruments" with plastic tubes played as trumpets and bagpipes, climaxing in dissonance. The centerpiece was La Plante's "Themes and Variations," a childlike 13-part arrangement executed with table-leg marimba, broiler pans, and humidor panpipes, as intricately played as a gamelan piece (half of MFHI moonlight in gamelan ensembles). The show was at once laughable, educational, ridiculous, and inspiring. Kids, try this at home. Jason Gross


Adrift

Charlie Musselwhite began recording in 1966 after apprenticeships in Memphis and Chicago perfected his nuanced approach to both harmonica and guitar. As a songwriter, his style is steeped in dry wit and genteel melancholy. His vocals shade somewhere between the countrified rasp of Johnny Cash and the sensual lilt of a Cajun dandy. On his new album, Continental Drifter (Pointblank/Virgin), this Mississippi native does indeed drift pretty far from his Delta roots. Like Ry Cooder before him, Musselwhite experiments here with Afro-Latin root music. His performance last Thursday at the Mercury Lounge found him laying long, mournful harmonica riffs against the syncopated rhythms of Cuba and Brazil, playing langorously flattened chords against keyboard montunos and duende-drenched guitar solos.

Charlie opened with two original acoustic blues numbers, "Blues up the River" and "Please Remember Me." Then with his band, he segued into richly hybridized pieces like "Que Te Parece, Cholita" and "Sabroso." The purpose of this abrupt transition was to prove how easily one can slide from Delta slur into Cuban clave. The tunes, which were a bilingual blend of Cuban son and American blues, were surprisingly Tex-Mex in flavor— "border" music in the deepest sense of the term. Material which mixed blues with baiâo or bossa nova beats were similarly fresh to the ear yet oddly familiar— as tantalizingly cryptic as a rhythmic Rosetta stone.

That Musselwhite's current tour coincides with the release of Wim Wenders's documentary on Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club is both risky and serendipitous. The comparison is instructive. Continental Drifter even contains Musselwhite's version of that film's signature tune, Francisco Repilado's "Chan Chan." But unlike the Buena Vista ensemble, Musselwhite wants to absorb and recontextualize this stuff, not revive its original purity. —Carol Cooper


Austerity Drives

Doyen of pure techno, Jeff Mills is famed and feted for DJing with three turntables. His virtuosity involves taking ultraminimal tracks (often just a beat and a two-bar loop) and montaging them together until the result sounds like... a marginally less minimal techno track. "DJ tools" rather than stuff to listen to, these records only really become music when Mills is crosshatching their most urgent passages together.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Mills played a rare New York gig, thrilling a Twilo crowd evenly split between club kids buzzed to have an extra night to party hard and techno purists for whom this former member of Underground Resistance is the very definition of "subcultural capital." It would require a DJ's familiarity with the mixer to really detect when his three-turntables-at-once mode was operating full tilt. But what came across (very) loud 'n' clear was the ferocious physicality of Mills's aesthetic, and the expertise with which he simultaneously sustained and modulated the intensity, avoiding the usual diminishing-returns syndrome of shellshocked numbness.

As the model of an "educational DJ," Mills avoids the obviously crowd-pleasing— not just rave dynamics, but anything that might connect techno to "normal" pop. So the first human voice (barking "Work that body!") came 90 minutes into his set; for melody, you had to wait another half hour. Yet the fervent crowd seemed perfectly pleased with Mills's austerity. The listener becomes engrossed by the different densities of abrasion, tantalized by the harsh sensuousness of brushed-steel hi-hats snares that dwell somewhere in the interzone between squelchy and scratchy. Above all, the Mills experience is about energy, the exaltation and deployment of pure dynamic forces. At its frequent peaks, it feels like your veins are infused with liquid lightning. —Simon Reynolds

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