10 Listens is a music review series where Michael Durek listens to an album at least 10 times, taking notes along the way: the aim is to give a comprehensive picture of an album.
Places listened: On high-quality, over-ear headphones; Buick Regal 2003 (LS); NJ PATH train and NYC Subway L train; home stereo system in NJ; through laptop speakers.
If Clara Rockmore was the Yo-Yo Ma of the theremin, then Pamelia Stickney is its Jimi Hendrix. This is most evident when guitarist Chris Janka and drummer Mark Holub join her as Blueblut for their full-length CD, Hurts so gut. Although the rhythm section plays a tight array of rock, jazz, funk, and calypso grooves, the lead instrument is a theremin. Equal parts squeak, rumble, and croon, the theremin also plays some of the bass lines.
Composer and pianist Lera Auerbach described the theremin as being “very difficult to play […] there are maybe only a handful of players in the world who can play this instrument well.” In her 2002 TED talk, “The untouchable music of the theremin,” Stickney proved it’s possible to play classical and jazz theremin even more virtuosically than Rockmore. Since then, she has moved well beyond demonstrations of technical skill, as on her quiet, introspective 2007 release on Tzadik. Stickney continues to embrace the latest technology and push the limits of what’s possible with this instrument.
Hurts so gut expresses humor, joy, playfulness, and a little darkness. I never would have guessed how it was composed. The press release describes the album as “A collection of first-time-ever-played-one-take tracks, improvs, and songs.” The production (also by Janka) is nuanced, but what carries Blueblut is the chemistry of its players.
Janka’s strumming attack on the guitar is soft and clear—a rare treat on an experimental album. He plays tight sixteenth-note triplet chords and melodic arrangements. Drummer Holub lays out a dictionary of rock and jazz fills. Loose and flowing, he and Janka are in the pocket. They drive the music in interesting directions, both rhythmically and harmonically.
On the first listen, I was reminded of both Zappa and Bartók. Many of the tracks are campy but rooted in traditional music, and have melodies outside of the usual major and minor scales. Blueblut has a distinctive sound, and, as with Zappa, the jamming is often magnificent.
The opening track, “You Think,” begins with microtonal theremin playing. After the guitar enters, Stickney speaks in an animated tone, “Is this what you thought it was gonna be like?” Then all hell breaks loose, and the rock’n’roll trio explodes, with indiscriminate yelling in the background.
“Fuckhead Toothbrush” is a wild journey through different moods. It begins with Janka’s guitar playing harmonic tenths: a progression reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Another Green World.” In a few minutes, the track morphs into an ostinato guitar riff in 7/8 time—a welcome contrast to the half-time feel of the A section. The music crescendos to a climax, with looping theremin and the sound of sautéing onions. The music features a few minutes of abstract noises, then ends as it began.
“Apocalypso” begins with Indian droning sounds. The charismatic guest vocalist Willi Landl repeats “Come on! Ah, moooove,” sounding like a Tibetan chant. Finally the phrase continues, “Move your ass.” Perhaps this expression is a light-hearted motivational warning to inactive Americans. Further into the track, the line finishes “[…] and your mind will find love.”
“Calypsoma” begins with a familiar-sounding guitar calypso progression. Noisy, processed blips and laser sounds take the lead. Hidden in this calypso jam, at two minutes, twenty-two seconds, Stickney showcases some of her most subtle articulation and nuance. The theremin melody is delicate, precisely executed, and bluesy.
The comical “Big in Iran” is made to sound like a bad garage band practicing to a metronome. The hook, which is the same as the title, is repeatedly mumbled over some sloppy rhythms.
“No ASMR” is a rhythmic piece featuring bass theremin and quick staccato guitar chords. For the first two minutes, it loosely follows the form of a rock song. The music then becomes more textural and abstract. The guitar arrangement shines in this section, playing multiple counterpoint lines layering onto itself. Then, rather than leading to a poppy chorus, there is an atonal minimal breakdown. After a few minutes of an ambient break with some theremin, there is another mega jam towards the end.
“Monkey Buh” has a theremin bass groove that only Stickney could pull off. Such a crisp staccato attack is impressive on an instrument where the note is initiated by moving the hand away, in thin air, from a metal rod.
This playful album was a delight to listen to. Most of these tunes come across like highly abstracted, well-executed cover versions of pop songs that never were. I hope it becomes big in Iran.
MICHAEL DUREK is a Jersey City-based multi-instrumentalist and producer who performs as theUse, is in Pas Musique, and works with many others. He has contributed to Caliper Music blog, Impose magazine, and Tape Op magazine.