Lend Him Your Ears: Isaac Levine's Fishpeoplebirds label celebrates the release of a new tape with a little help from his friends

MUSIC PREVIEW

Isaac Levine, Rebeccah Rosen, Kevin McKay, Jacob Rogers, and Lily Talmers

Clockwise from top left: Kevin McKay, Isaac Levine and Rebeccah Rosen, Lily Talmers, and Jacob Rogers.

Despite being a talented multi-instrumentalist and knowledgeable sound engineer, Isaac Levine's recordings and songs have a ramshackle quality. His off-kilter music is so eccentric, quirky, and whimsical that the label "outsider folk" doesn't fully capture the idiosyncratic spirit behind his songs.

Levine's lyrics are frequently surreal, too -- check out his October single "Modular Synth Trucker," a 36-second ode to a guy who drives his semi-truck from town to town playing his synthesizer. That's it, that's the tune.

One of his several bands, The Platonic Boyfriends, even released an album in 2018 called Pee on These Hands.

But Levine is also capable of pointed political commentary, especially involving issues in Washtenaw County, as he talked about with me for his 2018 solo album A Death So Obsessed With Living.

Levine is also prolific, and in addition to "Modular Synth Trucker," this fall he and Dr. Ruby put out the Dragon's Coldness tape on his Fishpeoplebirds label, which has this tag on its Bandcamp page: "label specializing in people that Isaac knows."

Some of the many talented people Isaac knows and works with are playing Argus Farm Stop on Saturday, Dec. 21, to celebrate a new Fishpeoplebirds tape with Rebeccah Rosen's music on the A-side and Levine and Rosen's Dreambag project on the other. Both of them will perform, and so will Kevin McKay -- whose dream-pop single "Headspace" came out in November and was recorded by Levine -- Jacob Rogers, and Lily Talmers.

Check music from the performers below:

High Five: New music from Dr. James Kibbie, Seattle Stomp, Dre Dav, Idle Ray & Ki5

MUSIC

James Kibbie, Seattle Stomp, Dre Dav, Idle Ray & Ki5

Five new music releases from Washtenaw County artists.
 

By day, Kyler Wilkins works for Ann Arbor software company Menlo Innovations. By night, he's Ki5, creating lovely music influenced by hip-hop, electronica, and a capella. Wilkins builds songs from samples of his voice, and while it's loop-based music, it sounds anything but stuck in a loop. As heard on his new Looking for the Sun EP, Wilkins is an expert arranger of vocal harmonies, and his compositions bloom organically into gorgeous sonic flower grooves. Curious to see how Wilkins puts it all together live? Ki5 is the first artist to perform on the first night of Mittenfest (Dec. 27-29 at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti).

 

As a member of Ann Arbor's Towner, Alex Molica makes fuzzy indie-punk that feels Midwestern to the core. The group's self-titled four-song EP from July is ramshackle and catchy with a heart-on-the-sleeve vocal delivery. But "Great Unknown," the first single from Molica's solo project, Seattle Stomp, is a stripped-down, quirky, acoustic-guitar-based song that is built on a repeating, descending chord progression for all four minutes it lasts. Molica has an album-release show for Seattle Stomp's Maudlin Madness on January 3 at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Ypsilanti, but before that you can see Towner at The Blind Pig on December 20 as part of "Decemberween" with Detroit's The Lucid Furs, Ypsilanti's Bubak, and Ypsi-Arbor's You Look Poor! (I'm not yelling; the exclamation point is part of the band's name.)

 

Bring the Noise: Benjamin Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan explore the far side of music

MUSIC PREVIEW

Screenshot from Ben Miller's live performance at Detroit's Eastown Theatre, 2015

Screenshot from Ben Miller's live performance at Detroit's Eastown Theatre, 2015.

It was nearly 10 am on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2019, when I turned on WCBN in my car. The University of Michigan student radio station is a staple in my listening routine, but even my catholic ears were surprised to hear noise icon Merzbow power-sawing his way through two tracks followed by fellow Japanese screechers Otomo Yoshihide and Keiji Haino just after breakfast time.

It was free-form radio at its free-formiest, but it was also a reminder that these Japanese artists -- among others on the outer fringes of music -- helped spawn a Southeast Michigan noise-music scene in the 1990s that, despite the difficult listening, spread through the DIY underground and helped hatch micro-scenes in various basements across the U.S.

The Michigan scene birthed in the 1990s grew up in the early 2000s -- think Wolf Eyes, Universal Indians, Princess Dragonmom -- and began to morph as artists left the state, changed the focus of their music, or left playing in bands entirely. Still, the scene continued to plug away and mutate with new groups emerging such as the more rocking Child Bite and Heavier Than Air Flying Machines, the dark and ambient Evenings, tape-based acts Sick Llama and Creode, coarse electronics from Lidless Eye, and electro-acoustic weirdness from The New Me, Glass Path, and more. There was also the recent Trip Metal festivals, founded by Wolf Eyes' John Olson, which brought together noise freaks, free jazzers, and assorted other sonic cosmonauts in Detroit for three days of plundering earholes. 

And I can't forget Ann Arbor's mysterious Satan Face, an unnamed member of which appears to be responsible for playing Merzbow & Co. on the radio during otherwise pleasant mid-mornings. The Satan Face show Nothing but the '90s! is on WCBN every Tuesday from 9-11 am playing the harshest of the harsh, and that show's playlist could easily include Ben Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan, former guitarist for acclaimed art-rock act Sightings. Miller and Morgan lived away from Michigan for many years, but they've both returned to the Detroit area and are teaming up for a hair-parting concert on Saturday, Dec. 14, at Lo-Fi Bar in Ann Arbor.

Paper Tiger: Ann Arbor artist Matthew Shlian offers a new work via Ghostly and a retrospective book

VISUAL ART

Matthew Shlian's Omoplata series and Unfolding book

Top and bottom: Matthew Shlian's Omoplata series and Unfolding book.

I'm not a clumsy person -- in fact, I'm kinda athletic.

But I have the spatial awareness of a toddler.

I often have a hard time visualizing how something is created if I'm trying to replicate that thing from written instructions, a diagram, or a video. My brain doesn't translate the info in a way that my fumbling hands can follow.

Matthew Shlian's superpower is spatial awareness.

The Ann Arbor-based artist has the remarkable ability to build stunning 3D paper sculptures that undulate, pop, jab, and ripple. He creates his art by gluing together small pieces of paper and then affixing them in patterns that create the illusion of movement. Shlian's deep understanding of spatial relationships and shading allows him to create complex patterns that still seem minimalist. 

Since 2011, Shlian has distributed many of his limited edition works through Ghostly International, which is best known for releasing electronic music but it's also had many partnerships with artists and companies to create branded pieces that run from shoes to a custom video-game console, as well as unbranded fine art from Andy GilmoreBrandon Locher, and Langdon Graves.

Omoplata is Shlian's latest series promoted by Ghostly, and despite the artworks' delicate look, the design was inspired by a tricky submission move in Brazilian jiu-jitsu:

Ypsi-Arbor hip-hop collective KeepItG Records caps a busy 2019 with a benefit show and new album

MUSIC

Keep It G Records crew

Members of KeepItG Records this summer in Detroit. Photo via Facebook.

The Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor hip-hop scene is so prolific that it feels like there's not a day that goes by that doesn't feature a new single, video, or concert from one of its artists or collectives. From the Approachable Minorities/Northern Threat Entertainment/734 Saturdays faction and Duke Newcomb's Dojo to Louis Picasso's Hiiigherminds and numerous other associations of DJs and MCs, there's been an ongoing hip-hop renaissance in Washtenaw County the past few years.  

The KeepItG Records troop is among the most productive of these resolutely DIY groups -- and that's not even counting DJ Dyelow creating a beat every day of 2017. In addition to Dyelow, the crew includes producers/DJs/MCs Hi Potent C, DJ Cataclysmic, S.Delli, Aareus Jones, TwoFace Suave, and Caldane.

Many of these artists -- along with Denae, STY, Julia Furlong, and J. Donahey -- will come together on December 14 at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti for a breast cancer research fundraiser. It will also serve as something of a kickoff party for Dyelow and Hi Potent C's forthcoming album, War Medicine. The debut single, "Medicine," dropped December 5, and a new track is scheduled to be released every week until the album is fully out.

Below is a selection of 2019 videos, songs, and mixtapes by artists associated with KeepItG Records to help you play catch-up. 

High Five: Music from Louis Picasso, ZZVAVA, False Figures, Joanna & the Jaywalkers, and Mike Watt doing The Stooges

MUSIC

High Five photo collage

Five Washtenaw County-associated audio recordings that have rung my ears recently:

➥ Ypsilanti rapper Louis Picasso is known for his live shows featuring a full band, The Gallery, and his tunes usually reflect this ensemble approach to making music. But for Picasso's new single, "I'm Not Sorry," he teams with Ann Arbor producer Brooklyn Beatz for a trap-influenced, studio-crafted song that shows off a bit of the rapper's singing voice during the chorus.

➥ ZZAVA and False Figures also hail from Ypsi and both groups play variations of flannel-wrapped indie rock, with the former upping the noise and tempo compared to the latter's twangier, more laconic leanings. Both bands have fine second albums out now -- ZZAVA's Casual Crisis and False Figures' Flat -- and fans of guitar-based songcraft will find much to enjoy.

➥ On the softer side of guitar-pop, Joanna and the Jaywalkers have had a quiet fall after a busy summer. Led by singer-songwriter Joanna Ransdell, the fluid group has absorbed some new musicians this autumn as others have moved on, and the new crew is working on a follow-up album to 2018's The Open Sea Before Me. But you can check out the summer version of the Jaywalkers in a 45-minute concert taped June 19, 2019, at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival by Dave TV's Zone. (In fact, Dave & Co. have recorded a LOT Summer Fest concerts over the past six years; check it out.)

➥ Rounding out this round of releases is a 7-inch that came out on 2019 RSD Black Friday: Larry Mullins + Mike Watt, "1969" (Parts I and II): A Tribute to Scott Asheton. Asheton was The Stooges' powerhouse drummer whose essential skins-smashing is sometimes overlooked because of his brother Ron's killer guitar and bass work -- or that Iggy guy's mean-mugging on the mic. "1969" is a Bo Diddley-fueled jam from The Stooges' self-titled debut, and I'm sure Mullins and Watt kill it on their version -- I just can't find the audio since it's a RSD exclusive. (Check with Encore Records, Underground Sounds, and Wazoo Records to see if they have copies). Mullins is not the U2 guy, but a frequent drummer for Swans, The Residents, Iggy Pop, and others. And Watt was the legendary bassist for The Minutemen who was not only a member of the reunited version of The Stooges, but a frequent performer on tribute concerts to the band, including the 2018 70th birthday bash to Ron Asheton at The Blind Pig. So, until we can find audio of the "1969" 7-inch -- or procure a vinyl copy -- check out the original version of the song set to live footage of The Stooges from the same year.

"Impulse Ann Arbor" documentary explores the present and history of the town's techno-music scene

MUSIC REVIEW

Impulse Ann Arbor

DJ and MEMCO member Victoria Johnson in a still from Jordan Stanton's documentary Impulse Ann Arbor.

If all you know of Jeff Hayner is that he's a sometimes controversial member of the Ann Arbor City Council for Ward 1, Jordan Stanton's Impulse Ann Arbor documentary will be an eye-opener. 

The film is primarily about the university-affiliated Michigan Electronic Music Collective (MEMCO), a group of student DJs, producers, dancers, and fans who support and promote techno via a variety of events, including the monthly Impulse party.

But Impulse Ann Arbor also explores the connection between the current techno scene and the people who helped launch it -- and that includes Hayner, who was a longtime co-host of WCBN's Crush Collision, which began in 1987 and continues to this day (Thursdays, 10 pm to 1 am, 89.1-FM). 

Hayner's DJ name was Jeffrey Nothing -- borrowed from David Lynch's Blue Velvet. In the early 1990s, Hayner and Crush Collision co-host Brendan Gillen (aka BMG, aka Ectomorph) were early enthusiastic supporters of Detroit techno and its offshoots, helping draw a line of influence to Ann Arbor from the Motor City (with a zig through Belleville -- home of electronica pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson). 

Gillen and Hayner are two of several talking heads in Impulse Ann Arbor, including current MEMCO members DJ Holographic, Cat Kenzie, Kavin Pawittranon, and others, as well as Shigeto, aka Zachary Saginaw, whose accent is so PURE MICHIGAN that it adds an extra level of local love to his affectionate words about the town where he grew up. They all pay tribute to A2's legacy as a progressive place -- musically and otherwise -- and the MEMCO DJs do a fine job of explaining the collective's mission to be inclusive and mentoring, passing knowledge to anyone who wants to learn how to create a dancefloor-filling mix. The 22-minute documentary also gives nods to the Nectarine Ballroom -- aka Necto -- which was an early Ann Arbor home for industrial electronic music and techno, and to WCBN's legacy as one the local scene's hubs in the 1990s.

Director Stanton is a senior at U-M and co-president of MEMCO, so it's no surprise his Impact Ann Arbor reads like a love letter to the organization he helps lead and the university town that supports it. But what's not to love about dancing the night away among friends, or DJing music that makes people from different backgrounds come together under the same beat?

Even councilmember Hayner still spins from time to time -- on the turntables. There are no politics on the dancefloor.

See Impulse Ann Arbor below:

Winter Breakbeats: MEMCO's recent electronic-music mixes bring the heat

MUSIC

MEMCO painted The Rock in Ann Arbor on November 4, 2019

MEMCO painted The Rock in Ann Arbor on November 4, 2019. Photo via MEMCO's Facebook page.

We all have ways of coping with the holidays.

Some eat and drink in abundance to steel themselves against their uncle's ranting of conspiracy theories.

Others join their uncle in spouting said conspiracies.

And then there's you, the person who emotionally logs out by jamming headphones so deep into your earholes that the only thing you hear is whatever jams you're pumping at family-saving volumes.

Well, the Michigan Electronic Music Collective has some gifts for you, O' Blocker ov Bloviators.

The University of Michigan group more commonly known as MEMCO has had an active fall. In addition to throwing various dance parties and frequently holding down the Crush Collision radio show, MEMCO teamed up with the Maize Collective and WCBN for an event at Club Above on November 22 that raised $1,725 for The Avalon Village in Detroit. (MEMCO will also team up with the North Coast Modular Collective for "Getting Started in Electronic Music" at AADL on January 11.)

But what you need for the holidays aren't dance parties or fundraisers; you need Loud Uncle Blocking Mixes, which MEMCO members past and present have been cranking out this fall. Below are all the recent MEMCO-associated mixes the collective has posted to or flagged up on its Soundcloud page, plus a link to a Pulp article back in September where I collected all the mixes the group posted over the summer and at the start of school.

In other words, hours and hours of peace and non-quiet to get you through the holidays.

Africa Unite: The Voice of America's "Music Time in Africa" radio broadcasts find a home at U-M

MUSIC

Leo in an African radio station

Leo Sarkisian visiting a radio station somewhere in Africa. Photo courtesy the Leo and Mary Sarkisian Collection.

The Leo and Mary Sarkisian Collection at the University of Michigan contains a rich variety of artifacts from the longtime Voice of America broadcaster, whose creation, Music Time in Africa, is the longest-running English language radio program that broadcasts throughout Africa. There are audio recordings and documents from the Leo Sarkisian Library (on loan from Voice of America), as well as personal papers and musical instruments donated by the couple. 

But the latest addition came not from Leo and Mary, who died in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

According to a story written for the U-M Arts & Culture site, the current Music Time in Africa host -- and Michigan alumna -- Heather Maxwell let the Sarkisian Collection team know sundry tapes and scripts for old MTIA shows dating back to the mid-1960s were about to be boxed up and shipped to VOA's storage facility: salt mines in Western Pennsylvania. Knowing that if these items were sent to a cave, they'd essentially be inaccessible, Paul Conway, a U-M School of Information professor, and Kelly Askew, U-M professor of anthropology and Afroamerican and African studies, sprang into action.

Conway and Askew initially sought funding to digitize 30 Music Time in Africa shows, but once they saw how extensive and well-preserved the collection was, the duo boosted their target to 900 programs. The Sarkisian Collection team is digitizing 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, and vinyl records -- as well as original scripts, scrapbooks, letters, etc. -- and the first batch of these preservation efforts are online at the Music Time in Africa website.

Get Away With She: Nellie McKay wants to escape from it all

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Nellie McKay

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

This story was originally published on May 9, 2018, ahead of Nellie McKay's May 13, 2018, concert at The Ark in Ann Arbor. McKay is returning to The Ark on Monday, November 19 in support of her new 8-song EP, "Bagatelles," which you can hear below in addition to her 2018 LP, "Sister Orchard."

Nellie McKay often seems like she’s at a loss for words.

During our phone conversation to promote the pianist-singer-songwriter’s show at The Ark on May 13, her answers were often preceded by a swarm of ums, uhs, I means, and various other utterances. And when McKay did get to the answers, it wasn’t necessarily in response to my questions, instead offering long vignettes about politics and the stark realities of being a full-time musician. 

On stage, McKay has a similarly discursive way of speaking, mixing funny anecdotes, political pleas, and stammering self-effacement.

But once McKay strikes a piano key, everything flows. Words stream from her gorgeous voice with confidence and warmth. The quirkiness that defines her conversations gives way to sass and power, and listeners get invited into her world -- which is not of this era.