Rotations

-- Steven Almond

Steve Mackey
Lost & Found
(Bridge)

If Beethoven had an electric guitar, wouldn't he have jammed on it? Unfortunately, modern classical composers have left the special sound of the ax to rockers, with a few exceptions. One of these is Glenn Branca, who has written symphonies for groups of electric guitars. Another is Steve Mackey, whose past work includes stints playing electric guitar in rock bands and the lute in an early-music ensemble. Today, he teaches composition at Princeton University and writes concert music for ensembles of all sizes, with or without electric guitar.

He still plays a pretty mean ax, and Lost & Found presents Mackey performing six of his compositions, each of which features one or more parts for electric guitar. The title track is a brief, exuberant prelude for four multi-tracked guitars. "Cairn" and "Grungy" are solos, the former meditative, the latter extroverted -- a rock and roll catalogue of everything the instrument has to offer, from Jimi Hendrix to today's stadium metal, with Mackey taking the guitar's stereotypical sounds and putting them together in new ways. "Dancetracks" is a collaboration with composer Paul Lansky, who created the computer-generated tape of rhythm and drones that sparks the solo part. "Myrtle and Mint," a collage of excerpts from Hans Christian Andersen's stories (read by Mackey), shows the composer's ability to connect non sequiturs into a logical whole with music. "Wish It Were" begins as a dark and atmospheric piece for classical guitar, but it ends with an invasion by three electric guitars, screaming like banshees. Unsettling.

Are rock and classical music about style or about a type of sound? Lost & Found raises that question without answering it, but it makes me wonder whether Bach might become acceptable to a brand new audience if his music were played on a Stratocaster.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282
I Hope It Lands
(Communion)

True to its name, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 makes high concept music with a blue-collar attitude. The Bay Area five are the post-punk heirs to Captain Beefheart's rootsy surrealism -- a sort of jug-band version of Sonic Youth that bangs, jangles, and noodles its way through dense sound collages made of just about any ingredient, from free-jazz banjo to clanging metallic objects, from operatic exhortations to straight rock roar. Like their San Francisco brethren the Residents, Thinking Fellers twist, turn, and stomp all over musical convention until what's left sometimes hardly resembles music but nevertheless remains rooted in the verities of pure pop. With their sixth album, I Hope It Lands, Thinking Fellers take a confident -- though noncommittal -- further step toward cohesion. Dispersed among typically discordant and angular instrumentals "Inspector Fat Ass" and "Jagged Ambush Bug" are some of the band's most melodic and accessible moments: "Empty Cup," "Lizard's Dream," and "Elgin Miller" among them. Granted, Thinking Fellers' previous shifts toward accessibility (1993's Admonishing the Bishops, for example) haven't endured, but this time out the band's maturity and self-discipline indicate a willingness to develop songs fully where once they were content to let fragments jut out from the cacophony. Like Sonic Youth's own recent coming of age, Thinking Fellers' half-step toward center is not a grim concession to the mainstream; rather, it's a happy reconciling of their own conflicting impulses.

-- Roni Sarig

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