the primal white jelly

even missing two of the acts at tonic last friday, it was another great night of music hovering between the borders of quirky experimentalism and enjoyable melodies.

i arrived just in time to hear andy ortmann performing solo under the name panicsville. i say "hear" because there were no stage lights during his set, only a faint light from the bar in the rear. resembling a scientist toiling away patiently in the middle of the last century, ortmann calmly tweaked several small effect pedals and a mini synthesizer. this minimal setup was augmented by a tube running to his mouth which enabled him to make his bizarre textures literally speak. he was able to create a variety of sounds, from warbly slow-motion ambient minimalism to speaker-shredding noise. it was the best such show i've seen since the one i saw of colin potter of nurse with wound at free103point9. in fact i noted a few similarities with nww, although ortmann is a bit darker/noisier and indulges in more "modern" sounds than their leader steven stapleton. i was one of several people immediately at the stage once he finished his all-too-short set, buying his very good solo CD.

next up was the band flying, who constantly exuded a refreshing naivete in their music and approach. their instrumentation and delivery suggests people who were never told or cared to learn the usual or "proper" ways of doing things. it's almost as if they've heard next to no music at all, but walked into an old warehouse full of instruments and toys and decided to pick up whatever struck their fancy, following some primal call to make music. this resulted in a lineup of a pianist/vocalist, an electric guitarist/vocalist, a drummer, and a singer who also played drums and various toys and bells. their songs all had the kind of structure that only comes from people shutting out the outside world while playing purely for fun, with stops/starts and other unusual dynamics thrown in to alleviate boredom that might arise from the lack of complexity in their chord changes. their hesitant unison and simple harmony singing bore a resemblance in tone to a number of indie rock wallfower types, but no one specific came to mind. i have to say this is one of the most charming and original-sounding bands i've heard in a long time.

stars like fleas pulled out all the stops with their show. this was the largest ensemble i've seen them with yet. several of the musicians they've recorded with for their next album were onstage, including a saxophonist, a harpist, and a pedal steel player, all of whom are excellent. another great addition was bandleader shannon's ukeolin, which he alternated playing between bowing and whacking it while adding computer effects. they started off with an unstructured piece that resembled a medieval plainsong, quickly morphing into barely-controlled chaos. this was followed by another similar piece which slowly became their beautiful new song "cicada". they followed this pattern of instrumental improvisations alternating with somewhat more structured vocal songs for the rest of the set.

the result was definitely a more noisy, avant-garde representation of their abilities. the crowd applauded with vigor when the band paused between suites of 3 or 4 songs that bled into one another. i could have done with a little more melody and less chaos, but that's partially because my tastes in that style run towards the more noisy and electronic rather than abstract modern classical tone clusters. i definitely enjoyed it nonetheless; when you're dealing with improvisation, part of the excitement and danger is that moments that don't work rub up against those that do. stars like fleas, in any incarnation, have far more of the latter than the former.

the title of this post comes from a track on andy ortmann's CD.