Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Most! The Best! The Greatest! Forever!: Mixes by Cryptacize

Soon after the release of their fantastic 2006 album Calamity, San Francisco band The Curtains went and did a stupid thing. They broke up. Well, that might be a little misleading, since the "band" was essentially just Chris Cohen, a former Deerhoof guitarist who wrote, performed and recorded the album almost entirely on his own. Luckily, Cohen continues to write similarly minimal, challenging pop music as a member of Cryptacize, which also includes guitarist/vocalist Nedelle Torrisi, who lent her voice on a couple of Calamity tracks, and toured with The Curtains in support of that record. Though it's hard for me not to compare Cryptacize's two albums-- 2008's Dig That Treasure and 2009's Mythomania-- to Calamity, and to feel that they don't quite measure up to the excitement and singularity of that earlier album, that's a bit unfair, seeing as Calamity is easily one of my top five records of the last decade, if not ever. In fact, I actually think Cryptacize has put out two quite-good albums, and has forged a unique sound that melds elements of Ennio Morricone's 60s western soundtracks (Mythomania's "I'll Take the Long Way"), stage musicals (Dig That Treasure's title track), and melody-heavy children's music (Dig That Treaure's stand-out tune, "Cosmic Sing-A-Long") into a compelling and engaging new form.

It's this combination of disparate influences in Cryptacize's music that makes the mixes up on their blog so enjoyable and illuminating. On February 16th of this year, Cohen posted his first mix-- there are now five-- with the note:
since finishing our album Mythomania, I've been rediscovering listening to music for pleasure! as everyone knows, there is so much music available everywhere and for free. it's like a dream come true to me - anything I ever want to hear. well anyway, I'm going to make a bunch of mixes - and here's the first one.
And with that, Cohen gives us a 60-minute compilation that's as eclectic and exciting as any you'll ever hear. It starts with a swaggering blues/gospel number from post-war vocalist/guitarist Arbee Stidham, featuring an ecstatic organ line and Stidham's booming baritone. The next track, from a 2005 album by avant-punk group The Howling Hex, explodes with a wonderfully simple, distorted guitar lick that repeats for the entirety of the 3:30 minute song, underneath alternating male/female vocals. Then we have an experimental Moog composition, which shows up in iTunes with the title "Pixillation (schwartz, bell labs, 1971)", followed by a track from a J.A. Adofo & City Boys International, who describe as "Ghanaian highlife from the 70s and 80s". And the eclecticism never lets up from there. Each of the five mixes has it's own vibe, but all of them will have you thinking "that was great, who was that?" Occasionally the songs can tend toward a more experimental bent, but for the most part the music is accessible, and the majority of the more challenging songs are still palatable and rewarding upon repeated listens. Though there are a few recognizable names sprinkled throughout the mixes-- Les Paul, The Ronettes, Nina Simone, Queen, T. Rex--the vast majority are, to me, unknown treats. Ann Peebles' "Make Me Yours," from Mix #2, is one of the catchiest and most energizing songs that I've ever heard, while the song that opens that mix, "Motherless Child," sends chills down my spine.

Although you don't have to know Cryptacize to enjoy these compilations, it's definitely interesting to hear how each of the tracks is influential on the band's style-- the instrumentation of Tom Zé, the raw energy and simplicity of The Troggs, or the vivid, dreamlike imagery of Richard Harris' "Watermark". And to top it all off, Cohen has created a great series of "covers" for each of the compilations, all employing the same visual style of colorized, distorted photography, and a consistent typographic treatment: the text is uniformly Helvetica, with titles in quotes, all caps and italicized, and the remaining text in all lowercase. Though the covers aren't completely necessary-- most of the songs display their own album artwork in iTunes anyway-- their existence adds to the feeling of curation and care that has gone into the selection of each mix, and serves to hold them all together as a sort of boxed set--something much more considered and deliberate than the bulk of online music sharing.

If you're looking for a place to start, Mix #2, "Find Someone", is my favorite, though all have stellar tracks. Cohen has this to say about Mix #2, which articulates the juxtaposition and joy in each mix:
songs about looking for something or just beautiful songs.

please give Richard Harris a chance!
get inside of his brain!

the rest is sweet candy
Mix #1: "A Rainbow's Revenge"
Mix #2: "Find Someone"
Mix #3: "The Eternal City"
Mix #4: "The Edge of the World"
Mix #5: "Magic Glue"

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