Authored by Dale Nickey:
Jandek – “Houston Saturday (I know I’m Alive)”
Corwood Industries (0813)
Recorded Live at the Free Press Summer Fest June 1, 2013
With Jandek’s last studio release, “The Song of Morgan” in my rear view mirror, I didn’t foresee any immediate Jandek activity on the horizon. Then, along comes the always unassuming parcel from Corwood Industries. Hand printed mailing label in legible sharpie script and old school postage stamps in lieu of dated, metered business indicia.
Jandek’s last studio album was 2013’s “The Song Of Morgan”, a nine CD box set of piano nocturnes; a WTF?-a-thon of truly epic proportions. Jandek followed up with a live double CD, “Athens Saturday” -which I have yet to hear. Now we have “Houston Saturday”, a live album recorded in front of a hometown audience. http://corwoodindustries.com/
“Houston Saturday” is a scant 35:17 in length with only one track listed, the lead and closing song “Excited”. The cover finds our hero descending a stone staircase leading to nowhere but a grassy knoll. Jandek is in full beard and sporting an Ozzie Nelson cardigan and his now familiar black hat. His face gives nothing away. He may be amused or ready to come at the camera fists flying.
The music on “Houston Saturday” was recorded live June 1, 2013 at the Free Press Summer Fest. Not only is the sole track on the album titled, “Excited”, I also discover printed on the back cover of “Houston Saturday” the subtitle – “I know I’m Alive”. The words “I Know I’m Alive” may be some tacit acknowledgment of his ever growing indie iconography; or perhaps his mortality. Just a guess.
The piece starts with a brief drum solo, a good drum solo. Not by Jandek presumably, as musician credits are still verboten on all Corwood releases. However, my engineer’s ear tells me there is a serious attempt at sonic integrity with this recording. Jandek has got himself a damn good rhythm section. Good thing, because we’ve got a thirty five minute stretch of road ahead with no stopping for snacks or bathroom breaks.
The man himself crashes his own party about thirty seconds in. The guitar sound is full and gritty. It sits well in the mix. Jandek seems in tune with himself (if nobody else). When listening to Jandek free associate at top volume it helps to think of Jandek’s guitar as a percussion instrument. Jandek has distilled his artistry into something very minimal and highly concentrated. There are no discernible melodies or recognizable chords in evidence, but he does know rhythm. I can’t dismiss the work of an artist who’s been plowing his furrow for 35 years. On “Houston Saturday” he’s dredging up something from a very deep (perhaps toxic) well. It might be slimy and partially decomposed. But then again, it might be a clue to something important or have some other psychoanalytic relevance.
For me, this is loud music meant to be played at low volume. There’s an inner logic to Jandek’s improvisations; a tangled symmetry to the seemingly random brushstrokes he applies to the ensemble sound. To carry the painting analogy one step further, we celebrate visual artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline; artists who trade in chaotic, non-representative images on canvas. However the public and music critics are much less forgiving of those who do it in sound. Indeed, the Pollock/Jandek nexus makes more sense the more I think about it.
At 3:35 Jandek introduces his signature moaning calf vocals. Jandek skates the boundary between singing and spoken word. His voice is strong, commanding and intimidating.
“Can’t sleep, can’t stay awake,
Can’t get down, can’t get up…., I’m so excited……”
At 06:57: “…You come around, you go away, you’re here …..I’m dreaming……”
In a group format, Jandek pushes his rhythm section to places they might never think to go themselves. The middle section of “Excited” is a swirl of poly-rhythm courtesy of Jandek’s gifted bass and drums tag team. Jandek interjects himself into the mix with stabbing urgency.
The cacophony breaks down at 23:30 to some very delicate down- low improv from the rhythm section. At this juncture Jandek gives his guitar a rest and unfurls a bass n’ drums framed litany of misery. Perhaps this is his “State of the Jandek Speech’. All I know is, he started out the album declaring his excitement. However, by track’s end he sounds more agitated than anything else. There seem to be issues of crippling isolation and/or abandonment. Its unclear whether he’s personally aggrieved or emotionally removed. He does describe an elusive other person who can’t be touched, seen or felt. It’s as if Jandek had suffered a coma and is now describing the state of half consciousness many have claimed to experience while in that condition.
“I can’t think, I can’t feel…..I’m upset (obsessed?), that’s what’s real….”
This stream of consciousness rant builds and continues to the very end. Finally, Jandek projectile orates his closing thought on this Houston Saturday:
“I’m using you to stay alive….
Please use me too…..be my obsession and I’ll be yours“.
The piece collapses to the floor in conclusion. The audience in attendance gives a lusty ovation and a few shouts of ‘more!’ are heard. This was a good day apparently.
I’m not here to declare “Excited” a work of genius. The piece is a musical exploration as involving or off-putting as any Steve Vai guitar workout. Jandek goes to some interesting places musically and also loses the plot occasionally. Such are the pitfalls of live, improvised music. Whereas your standard issue guitar hero will flub high speed execution of chords and intricate fingering, Jandek’s musical missteps seem more existential than technical. Oh, how I wish to see Jandek collaborate with a sympathetic producer/engineer with the surgical skills to cut and paste Jandek’s meanderings into a compacted musical statement. Jandek has given us over seventy releases of unfiltered id. A Jandek redacted and edited for the masses would be an interesting paradigm shift; one that might actually move a few units.
After the musical advances of “Maze of The Phantom” and “The Song of Morgan”, Jandek has returned to the sound and fury of his second period. Is Jandek simply throwing red meat to an adoring hometown crowd? One hopes this is just a temporary lateral move.
Jandek’s time may have come as an indie icon. Kurt Cobain famously declared that anybody who likes Jandek’s music is pretentious. I reject that theory. Jandek’s music is a legitimate palette cleanser to those of us who feel moved to violence upon the 10,000th hearing of Elton’s John’s “Candle In the Wind”. I don’t want Jandek to put out another “Song Of Morgan”. But next time out, I do want him to throw me an existential curve-ball, high and tight…. aimed at my head.
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