Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he explores music solely distributed outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.
“There are other worlds they have not told you of,” sang the late independent label owner and futurist bandleader Sun Ra. Even in the 21st century, the same remains true. There will always be recorded music unlikely to get a virtual blink from even the most benevolent algorithm-bot, living digitally in Facebook videos and badly tagged Soundcloud uploads and archived live performances, music still generating and somehow protecting its own turf. We’ve highlighted a few below:
Though the phrase “contemporary psychedelia” gets bandied about somewhat regularly (perhaps even in this very column), former Emeralds guitarist and current solo artist Mark McGuire makes a more literal claim on the term than most these days. On “Sac & Fox Prayer Song,” McGuire delivers an a capella cover of a song drawn from the repertoire of Native American Church peyote music. “Made with re spekt,” McGuire notes on his Facebook posting. Labeled only as an untitled Sac & Fox Prayer song, the music floats reverently, blissed into modernity with a dab of AutoTune.
A complex mix of the entheogenic cactus wisdom and the more familiar teachings of Christ, peyote music is a reminder of the crossroads between this world and others. On another semi-contemporary Sac and Fox Nation prayer song, performed by the late Oklahoman Native American Church leader Carl Butler and posted on Soundcloud, the otherworldly invocations give away to a more straightforward English-language testimony to Jesus Christ. Butler, who passed away in 2000, was on a quest to preserve the sacred songs.
Today, songs seem to be preserving themselves. One can find a running Soundcloud playlist with some 110 peyote songs containing a vast range of fidelity, tribes, and vocal/percussion balances, from raw performances probably captured on cell phones to the intimate whisper of Gordon Emhoolah’s “Sounds From Friday Morning.” Beyond McGuire’s AutoTune’d interpretation, there’s an alluring scope and sense of contemporary practice in the playlist, a sign of the Native American Church fitting itself into the contours of social media and suggesting a type of American folk psychedelia both teeming with an active scene and ready for deeper consideration. Spinning out from the peyote music, too, is the type of intensely tranced percussion chants that don’t only occur in the jungles of the Southern hemisphere but right here in these already-great United States.
From southern India comes another kind of devotional music: the electric Carnatic mandolin of Sreeusha and Sireesha Threemurthulu, the Mandolin Sisters. Having played together for nearly a decade, the two achieve a casual and obvious musical telepathy, tearing off breathless synchronized mandolin runs guaranteed to shoot rainbow-beams into the nearest open third eye. Videos of recent performances have them in matching outfits, playing with a maximum dexterity and a minimum of flash, physical emotion boiled down to the power of small grins at each other every so often. They have CDs (and, Cassette Store Day fans take note, tapes) available, but their digital music lives in Facebook videos and embedded performance links.
Also in the off-stream musicking universe is Grey Gersten’s Custom Melodies project. Operated from a small booth in Manhattan’s Chinatown in early 2014 and presented in fully-integrated website earlier this year, Gersten’s creations are across between the instant song-poems of Rodd Keith and the art-school pop surveys David Byrne once conducted. The results, recorded in one take each, sustain a dreamy space between looped choruses, gentle drum machines and wandering pastel synths. While the recordings don’t quite make it as fully realized pop, they also take a more direct route to their goal, bypassing the obvious form and instead of creating moods and modes and hooks to remember.
Chicago’s Numero Group, the already-legendary archival label formed in 2003, are known for their lovingly detailed LPs, 7″ singles, CDs, books, box sets and DVDs, and their pleasant, right-on insistence on keeping their music off streaming services and anchored in the beautiful products they make. But that doesn’t mean they’re not above dropping occasional mystery tracks onto their Soundcloud account which, predictably, are sometimes fantastic. Recently, that included a 1980 7″ credited to Cracky, featuring a magically weightless b-side, called “Coming Home Again,” a drumless synth-bounce that soars beautifully and improbably and improbably. So improbably that when Cracky — seemingly an alias for David Casper — starts his scat solo, it not only makes perfect sense but brings the whole production to another amazing level, as if he’d suddenly been inhabited by the comedian Jon Glaser, and then the single ends. Because it’s from the Numero Group, Cracky is a dive so deep that the internet yields no further information, but it’s hard to imagine they’d let a single this breathtakingly magical go unreleased. Or would they?
While technically finishing up an album cycle for last year’s Stuff Like That There, Yo La Tengo has quietly slipped into a (yet another) period of exciting performances on a variety of fronts. In addition to their noise-jam contribution to the Three-Lobed Parallelograms box set in December, the band concluded a round of touring with founding guitarist Dave Schramm. Since then, Yo La Tengo has re-adopted their two-set quiet-ish/loud-ish format, the latest mutations being the band’s newfound re-dedication to jamming, and James McNew’s emergence as an excellent cosmic soul-folk upright bassist, both sides documented on the beautiful soundboard recording NYC Taper posted of the band’s hometown-ish gig on April 9.
Yo La Tengo has always jammed, of course. (Who could forget the 6/8/95 “From A Motel 6”?) But then what to make of the Dead-like loud/space/quiet segue sequences the band has started adding to their sets, like the sweet 15-minute “Before We Run” that melted into the slow version of “Big Day Coming” in Jersey City? Or their recent set-long collaboration with longtime Nashville chums Lambchop at the Big Ears festival, posted on Sweet Blahg? Or the 65-minute set at the same fest (sadly untaped, it seems) where the band played “nothing” for over an hour abetted by members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Australian free music heroes The Necks, harpist Mary Lattimore, and one of the dudes from the National? There was also an evening-long collaboration with avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Manhattan’s Merkin Hall, a fully challenging excursion into sonorities, tones, and feedback that led off with the dizzying and meditative vibrations of an extended technique piece for solo triangle, performed by Georgia Hubley. New directions in Yo La Tengo all ’round. Some shows can be found at Bit Torrent sites like Dimeadozen, and some are on blogs like the ones linked here, but in both cases, it’s not nearly enough.