Friday Five: Synths in the City

MUSIC

Friday Five, six covers

Are you a parent who just went through a week of trying to work from home while also playing IT consultant to your children as they tried to learn online?

Are you a teacher who just went through a week of teaching other children from home while also playing IT consultant to your own children as they tried to learn online?

Are you a human being who likes music made with electronics?

Are you human?

If you grunted in the affirmative to any of the aforementioned questions, then the five artists below have something good for you to hear.

Check out recent synth-based music by local musicians Fred Thomas, John Beltran, and Doogatron, as well as a new one from former Ann Arbor-ite Heathered Pearls, and an EP by a young German producer that came out on none/such, a burgeoning electronic-music label out of A2.

Author and A2 Pioneer Instructor Jeff Kass Contemplates the Working Life in "Teacher/Pizza Guy"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jeff Kass, Teacher/Pizza Guy

This story originally ran September 3, 2019. Kass is also author of the Fifth Avenue Press book "Takedown," a murder mystery. AADL cardholders can download the novel in PDF format here.

What do you do?

It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.

When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).

Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:

…were you trying to paint the sea? A place 

for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring

friend who brings you cookies and iced tea

and listens to you without judging…? 

This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.

Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”

Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.

Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius, will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.

Ann Arbor trio Towner created the terrific power-pop album "This Is Entertainment" during quarantine

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Towner

Towner, clockwise from upper left: Kris Ehrig, CT James, and Jason Horvath. Photo courtesy of the band.

Towner's debut album, This Is Entertainment, has all the earmarks of a power-pop classic.

The Ann Arbor trio of bassist Jason Horvath and guitarists Kris Ehrig and CT James recorded 12 songs for the LP and every tune could be single. Towner originally intended This Is Entertainment to be an EP, but the musicians were so happy with the results, they just kept recording at home, with Ehrig programming the drums. This Is Entertainment isn't exactly lo-fi, but there's a distinct bedroom-pop ambience to the record and that intimacy and warmth serves the band's songs perfectly.

"We had plans to record the 'normal' way in a studio in April," Ehrig wrote in an email, "but that got canceled for quarantine. At that point, I started recording a few songs on my own that weren't going to be on the record just to pass the time and keep myself sane. Then our drummer [Alex Molica] dipped to Vermont and everything got thrown out the window. Instead of scrapping it and starting over, or quitting altogether, we looked at a recording process that was working and switched to the material we had originally planned."

Towner's combined sound is reminiscent of the most melodic Guided By Voices songs, with Ehrig's tunes edging more toward those of The Only Ones -- mainly because of his slightly snarly singing, though he's a much stronger traditional crooner than Peter Perrett -- and James' compositions yanking out the catchier aspects of Weezer's music and leaning into them while discarding the annoying stuff (basically, being Weezer). I say this with peace and love as a Weezer non-fan and as someone who was knocked out by This Is Entertainment, but the way Towner plays with doo-wop-y harmonies and 1950s and 1960s rock 'n' roll vibes under its modern, hazy, indie-rock top layer frequently reminded me of the sorts of things Rivers Cuomo toys with in his songs.

Ehrig answered some questions about how Towner put together This Is Entertainment.

A.N.G.E.L.I. and Scary Steve team up with Jordan Stanton for the "They Take IV" music video

MUSIC FILM & VIDEO

Over the past year, University of Michigan student and Michigan Electronic Music Collective (MEMCO) member Jordan Stanton has put together three smart, stylish videos: one traced the history of electronic music in the city (Impulse Ann Arbor), another documented the work of one of the genre's most important local artists (58AAFF Artist Spotlight: Tadd Mullinix), and a new music video features the two recent artists on the scene, producer Scary Steve (Steve Klingbiel) and rapper by A.N.G.E.L.I. (Kamryn Thomas).

The video blends computer-generated landscapes and real-world places -- a Michigan forest in the fall, an Ann Arbor alleyway, Club Above -- along with the deadpan delivery of A.N.G.E.L.I. delivering a speedy rap over Scary Steve's skittering beats.

The song and video are both excellent, so have a look and listen.

The Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble is "Live" once again

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Rob Crozier Ensemble

The Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble: Keaton Royer, Crozier, Rafael Statin, and Rob Avsharian. Photo courtesy Rob Crozier.

Like most musical groups, the Rob Crozier Jazz Ensemble spent much of 2020 in quarantine due to the pandemic. 

But Crozier managed to keep the creativity flowing by digging into live recordings the group made at Grosse Pointe’s Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in February 2019, and the result is the Ensemble's first live album.

Live is a nice mix of funky fusion, straight-ahead jazz, and world music, featuring tunes from Crozier's last two studio albums, Tall Trees (2017) and Ocean Blue (2018), plus a couple of new songs. For this album, the Ensemble consisted of bassist Crozier, Rafael Statin on reed instruments, pianist/keyboardist Keaton Royer, drummer Rob Avsharian.

Crozier and Co., who were always active playing area stages and festivals before the pandemic, recently started performing again to socially distanced crowds as part of the ongoing series Jazz After Dark at Weber’s Restaurant.

In advance of the album’s release concert at Weber's on September 5, I emailed with Crozier about Live and how he stays creative during the pandemic.

Jazz pianist, Juno Award winner, and U-M professor Andy Milne guides us through his new album, "The reMission"

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Andy Milne

Photo by Chris Drukker

When jazz pianist Andy Milne moved to Ann Arbor in 2018 to become an assistant professor of music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation at the University of Michigan, he didn't know he would win the 2019 Juno Award for Jazz Album of the Year by a group for The Seasons of Being record with his Dapp Theory ensemble. 

But Milne did know he had survived prostate cancer in 2017, so winning Canada’s Grammy equivalent was a nice side note to, you know, being alive.

After recovering from cancer but before moving to Michigan, Toronto-area native Milne, who had lived in New York City since the early 1990s, also started the Unison trio featuring drummer Clarence Penn and bassist John Hébert, composing stripped-down music that is the opposite of Dapp Theory’s fractured-funk polyphony, which features a multitude of instruments and voices. The trio released its debut album, the contemplative The reMission, in April and had planned a tour for May, which the coronavirus pandemic wiped out.

While Milne was disappointed he wasn't able to promote The reMission, he's used the downtime to get acquainted with Ann Arbor now that his wife, the singer and Oberlin College and Conservatory educator La Tanya Hall, was finally able to join him in Michigan.

Plus, he looking forward to diving into what the University of Michigan has to offer in terms of combining his interests in pairing music with science and research.

“I realized when I came here, my primary focus was like, ‘Oh, I’m coming to Ann Arbor to take this teaching position and really embrace a role in the university community,’ both within [the school of] music, theater, and dance and just exploring where my path and where my place would be in the university,” Milne said. “So, I’ve been collaborating with faculty and researchers in different areas of the university for public health and these kinds of things. I’m finding where my zone will be inside of that.”

Combining music with other disciplines has long informed Milne’s work, including Dapp Theory’s The Seasons of Being, which coalesced around ideas he learned while treating his cancer with homeopathy, and the documentary soundtracks he’s composed for Capt. Kirk himself, William Shatner. (The reMission’s “Vertical on Opening Night” is named after something Shatner said in one doc.)

Being at a large research university like Michigan means Milne can continue to explore cross-disciplinary creativity, all in a town he finds welcoming and easy to navigate.

“I think it’s probably just the proximity of everything,” Milne says of Ann Arbor. “The fact that I’m living close to my work, and people are super-friendly here, and there’s great restaurants. I mean, it’s a really livable city, and I’ve been able to get out and enjoy riding my bike and exploring neighborhoods and things like that. I like the feeling here.”

While Milne wasn't able to go out and promote The reMission, he did give us a song-by-song tour of the new album, which you can listen to below on Spotify as you read his commentary.

Diane Cook's novel "The New Wilderness" envisions a world after extreme climate change

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Diane Cook and her book The New Wilderness

Author photo by Katherine Rondina.

Imagine being dropped off in the wilderness, uninhabited except for 19 people with you and rangers who patrol the land. Modern amenities are nonexistent, but the upside is that the air quality is much better than the polluted city. You live nomadically and hunt, fish, and gather to survive. This is not an extended camping trip. It is your new way of life. 

This intense scenario forms the premise of Diane Cook’s new book, The New Wilderness, a speculative novel involving relationships and the environment—and how the latter influences the former. The novel has landed on the long list for the Booker Prize. Cook has taught for the University of Michigan, is a U-M alum, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

In a joint virtual event, both Cook and Karolina Waclawiak, whose new novel Life Events was just published, will read and discuss their new books through the At Home with Literati series Monday, August 31, at 7 pm.

The characters of The New Wilderness, including Agnes, her mother Bea, and her mother’s husband Glen, go to the wilderness as part of a research experiment to determine whether this lifestyle is sustainable. Bea joined to save Agnes’ life. Agnes was five years old when they arrived and gravely ill from the effects of pollution. Despite learning how to stay alive in the wild and improving Agnes’ health, the characters’ memories of their former life, their love for one another in all its forms, and the burden of subsisting clash and inform their individual choices. 

Early on, Bea’s concerns emerge when considering their next journey to a ranger post farther than they’ve had to go before: 

Glen hooked his arm around her neck and pulled her close. “Now, now,” he murmured. “This will be fun.”

She knew that a big part of Glen believed this. But no part of Bea did. She pictured the map in her head again and saw all that unknown land, that beige parchment, all that nothing. They would be changed on the other side of it, that much she knew. Not knowing how was only one of the things that scared her.

The New Wilderness calls into question what the natural world is and should be, while also showing how vast the wilderness within and between people can be. 

I interviewed Cook about this book and her writing.

UMMA opens three new exhibitions online featuring works from its collection

VISUAL ART

Titus Kaphar's painting Flay (James Madison)

Titus Kaphar, Flay (James Madison), 2019, oil on canvas with nails. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. 2019/2.184. From the UMMA exhibition Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism.

Like a lot of museums, the University of Michigan Museum of Art shifted exhibitions online as it became evident the pandemic would be dragging on for the foreseeable future. But versions of both exhibits UMMA posted had already been produced for its galleries: Take Your Pick: Collecting Found Photographs, which ran in Fall 2019 (Pulp review), and Cullen Washington Jr.'s The Public Square, which ran from January 25, 2020, to March 13 when all of Michigan shut down.

And because the coronavirus crisis looks to drag on ad infinitum thanks to the federal government's gross abdication of responsibility, UMMA just moved ahead and produced its fall exhibitions with both online and in-person versions in mind. While there are no in-person opening dates for the three exhibits -- UMMA is working on some kind of staggered, socially distanced protocol that it will announce later -- you can check out all of them right now at umma.umich.edu.

The three exhibits:

Michigan Theater welcomes films and conversations with two Ann Arbor natives

FILM & VIDEO

Logos for the films The Fight and Vinyl Nation

New films by or featuring two Ann Arbor-ites -- and conversations with both of them -- are landing at the Michigan Theater.

Writer and filmmaker Kevin Smokler seems more comfortable in a different era; maybe one from 30 to 40 years ago. Or at least Smokler's really comfortable covering a different era -- and we liked his book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies so much we interviewed him twice (October 2016 and June 2017).

Smokler's new film, Vinyl Nation, is about the past decade-plus revival of LPs, which no matter their cult popularity now, are still totems of the pre-CD '80s.

As an Ann Arbor native, Smokler was blessed with numerous fantastic records stores here while growing up, and he's lived in San Francisco for the past 20 years, another place where vinyl records never truly went out of style. Vinyl Nation is co-director and co-producer Smokler's love letter to the vinyl format, and the film is coming to his hometown starting Friday, August 28, at the Michigan Theater's virtual screening room

Smokler and Vinyl Nation co-director and co-producer Christopher Boone will also do a virtual Q&A about their documentary on Wednesday, September 2, 7 pm (Facebook event link).

The Fight documents the frontline lawyers for the ACLU fighting for abortion and trans rights, as well as trying to fight for the children and families who have been locked up thanks to the current administration's draconian immigration policy. You can also rent this movie from the Michigan Theater's virtual screening room, but first you can listen to an interview with one of the stars of The Fight, Brigitte Amiri, an Ann Arbor native and deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom ProjectAmiri talks to the Michigan Theater's Behind the Marquee podcast about the ins and outs and ups and downs of her profession and being the subject of a documentary.

Check out the trailers for both films:

Please Don't Yell at David Zinn

VISUAL ART

Sidewalk chalk drawing of Sluggo the frog with Nadine the mouse sitting on his head.

Photo by Rich Retyi.

Interesting things learned during two hours of socially-distanced outdoor conversation with acclaimed illustrator and street artist David Zinn while he created Nadine Hypnotizes a Frog on a commercial property in an undisclosed location within the city limits of Ann Arbor.

PEOPLE YELL AT DAVID ZINN
In our pre-interview text exchange, Zinn revealed that people yell at him sometimes when he’s doing his thing. I think yell might be a strong word for the reaction a security guard or stickler-for-the-rules public servant or art-loathing property owner might throw his way. What’s the word for when someone locks eyes with you after staring curiously at you doing strange stuff on a sidewalk accompanied by a mysterious wooden case full of colorful things and a long pole next to you?

“Having a name on the internet doesn’t mean anything when I’m crouching on the ground,” says Zinn, whose work has been shared throughout social media and covered by Huffington Post, Graffiti Art Magazine, Bored Panda, and more. “I’m lucky a lot of people have a blind spot for weird things happening.”

What Zinn does is technically graffiti. But when it’s done on Ann Arbor city sidewalks, it’s completely legal.

Chapter 106 of Ann Arbor’s city ordinances titled NUISANCES mentions graffiti, along with outdoor storage, trash, dangerous structures, abandoned refrigerators, and parking in a drive-thru lane without making a purchase.

But there’s a sweet, sweet caveat:

“Any mark or marks on any surface or structure made without the prior permission of the property owner and made in any manner, including but not limited to, writing, inscribing, drawing, tagging, sketching, spray-painting, painting, etching, scratching, carving, engraving, scraping, or attaching. Chalk marks on sidewalks are NOT graffiti.” (ALL CAPS mine)

Zinn says Ann Arbor’s specific absolution for chalk is pretty unique. Still, technically, graffiti—and I feel like we’re damn near outlaws.