Between the Sleeves
Record reviews by Ernie Paik
Classical music’s often dubious relationship with rock is typically manifested in a few ways: borrowed classical motifs in pop/rock tracks, the novelty “String Quartet Tribute to <insert band name here>” albums, and more memorable, conscientious renditions such as Kronos Quartet’s reimagining of Television’s Marquee Moon. One method that is less common is integrating particular rock elements into modern classical pieces, focusing more on the timbres, repetition and rhythmic tugs rather than drawing upon familiar rock melodies. The new album Heavy from the Juilliard-schooled string quartet ETHEL is a peculiar, engaging record that explores using such methods for unusual, often unexpected outcomes on pieces by a variety of contemporary composers. Simply calling it a new classical/rock crossover would be a disservice.
Don Byron’s “String Quartet No. 2: Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye,” commissioned by ETHEL, opens the album with a full-on chugging vamp, quickly giving way to mysterious glissandos, a more ambient mood, and a sequence with wood-on-string pitter-patters. It serves those with both short attention spans and adventurous ears. John Halle’s “Sphere[‘]s” serves as a Thelonious Monk tribute (“Sphere” was Monk’s middle name) with an oddly cautious playing style during its “Misterioso” quotes, but it goes beyond that, evoking King Crimson violinist David Cross and blues riffage and ending with some strange yet satisfying melodic meshes.
ETHEL perhaps confounds purists when using amplified instruments, and there’s a trade-off—losing subtleties in favor of attempting to capture a rock throb. Clearly, the members of ETHEL are technically outstanding players, but distortion and amplification can hide virtuosity, with a sometimes awkward marriage of high-brow and low-brow sounds. Inversely, a string piece like Bernard Hermann’s “The Murder,” the famous screeching shower-scene music heard in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” wouldn’t work the same with electric guitars. “The Murder” comes to mind when hearing one highlight off Heavy—Julia Wolfe’s 1993 composition “Early that summer,” a 12-minute bundle of nerves and spark-spitting, projecting power not with blunt force but with a mood-arresting tension. Most rock music probably wishes it was this intense.
Music for Neighbors
Fans of the Hoboken, N.J., band The Feelies, known for its kinetic, unshakable, guitar-strum-happy momentum, have likely encountered the names of various related bands, such as The Trypes, Yung Wu and Speed the Plough. Non-completists might not have yet plundered the crates in search of this material or, foolishly, may have assumed that they are sub-par offshoots. In the case of The Trypes (not to be confused with the Greek band Trypes), it shared members with The Feelies, although that happened after The Trypes came together initially in the early ’80s. The new archival release at hand, Music for Neighbors, compiles the tiny discography of The Trypes along with a generous helping of early demo tracks, available on vinyl and as digital downloads, plus seven more selections culled from rehearsal recordings, solely available digitally.
Several similarities between The Trypes and The Feelies are apparent, especially on tracks like “The Undertow” on the 1984 EP, The Explorers Hold, demonstrating a compelling minimalist energy that bridges the gap between the chilly nervousness of The Feelies’ 1980 masterpiece, Crazy Rhythms, and the more earthy, acoustic The Good Earth from 1986. However, The Trypes otherwise conveyed a unique personality that utilized keyboards and woodwinds and tapped into psychedelia, channeling the Paisley Underground on its cover of The Beatles’ “Love You To” and the faux raga “The Inner Light” with raucous percussion. The demos and rehearsal tapes have some rough edges and are downright primitive at times. It’s too bad that better recorded versions of melodically entrancing tracks such as “Our Obsessions” and “Running On” weren’t available. The early demos, such as “Foreign Doctors,” sound particularly off-kilter, chimpy and slightly awkward, but patient listeners who stick through it will be rewarded with keepers like “Life History,” with a well-executed, mounting ending with electric guitar feedback and scrambling, showing that The Trypes deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of The Feelies.