Welcome to Alternate Routes, Jesse Jarnow’s Guide to Obscure Corners of Music

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Lightning Records’ beautiful homemade journal.

Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he’ll explore music solely distributed outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

The Joshua Tree-based Lightning Records, co-operated by Akron/Family’s Seth Olinsky and artist Ali Beletic, positions its cassettes and 61-page zine-journal as a joyous release from the ever-hassling net-life, or at least a dispatch of the world outside. While all of the label’s first five tapes come with download codes, they are also a pleasant reminder that one can still buy a Walkman online for $10 and listen to music via a medium with a long-established consumer/product relationship where the recording isn’t listening back. Filled with interviews, poetry, photography, and a striking sense of cultural place, Lightning’s handsome homemade quarterly works to reconnect the accompanying music to the variegated fields of all the far-out American freedoms, from surfing to architecture. Lightning’s tapes come in the form of traditional strummin’ and pseudonymed songwriters, like Ohian and Wooden Wand, the latter in particularly sharp and lonesome form on Azag-Toth. Oneida spin-off People of the North operate at the deep, unforgiving left of the Lightning dial, while label honcho Olinsky’s Cy Dune comes from an almost conservative right, shouting it out with ecstatic blown-out freedom rawk like “Dig Dig Dig” and “Rock and Roll.” But ever-present Nashville guitarist William Tyler turns in his third substantial work of the year and the gem of the set. Split between three pieces that swirl between acoustic patterns, electric drone, and sound collage and (on the flip) a full-side celestial jam with the percussionist Tim Barnes, the hour-long Blue Ash Montgomery is perfect for Walkman listening on a late-night saunter near you.

Bhutan-born guitarist Tashi Dorji makes his formal debut this month with the self-titled Tashi Dorji LP on Revolver USA-distributed Hermit Hut. It’s an assured set of solo improvisations that satisfy the pull between difficult and gorgeous, and simultaneously signals the arrival of a new voice. The natural habitat of Dorji’s atonal interruptions and graceful architectures isn’t a series of proper iTunes/Amazon-available albums, however — it’s the seemingly endless torrent of cassettes and digital-only releases streaming from his Bandcamp account. They are specimens from the teeming musical ecosystem removed from the formal licensing, boring design, depressing meta-data, and utter squaredom of Spotify. Instead, one can listen as Dorji shares his vocabulary-in-progress, from the masterfully weird and dexterously unwanky harmonic grids of “Attain” (from Blue Twelve) and the alternating figures of clang and sunset lushness on “Hills Rose Up Golden” (from the second of several self-titled Tashi Dorji tapes). It arrives too fast for the licensed world to catch up or even care. Since his Hermit Hut “debut,” Dorji has added more episodes in his ongoing monologue: another self-titled Tashi Dorji tape, a genuine cassingle recorded earlier this summer and highlighted by the train-track tock of “Fire in Water.”

Music from elsewhere, especially an elsewhere whose language uses non-Western characters, can get lost en route to domestic circulation. Without speaking the language, discovery often seems like a miraculous and dreamy act, exponentially more so when it comes from the fragmented microscopic scenes of Japan, perhaps stumbled upon via SoundCloud or late-night Googling. Rima Kato presents fragile lullabies in sweet ESL English, like a recording of “The Torchsong of the Choir” (below) in a Tokyo alleyway. Ogre You Asshole (a Revenge of the Nerds reference, naturally) comes in at the opposite end of the spectrum on their new 12-inch, “Rule Invisible,” finding a pleasing place between motorik bounce and a glistening disco thump not far removed from the retromanaical American contemporaries like Foxygen and Tame Impala but somehow avoiding the nostalgia. Modern Tokyo’s primo futurist Cornelius has been effectively MIA since 2007’s Sensuous, perhaps locking himself away until the big reveal that the Planet of the Apes movies were just a long-lead marketing campaign for his comeback. Meanwhile, he has released a pair of soundtrack collections, comprising library music-like work for NHK’s Design Ah! educational television shorts and the Ghost in the Shell: Arise anime series, each containing tone palettes hinting at future futures. Until then, one can also spend time trying to track down a Japanese-only Cornelius FM3 Buddha Machine, ready to fill rooms with custom drones composed by the man sometimes known as Keigo Oyamada.

The Philadelphia concert taper who documented Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band on November 15th, 2013 never got to put the MP3s on his website. Instead, the band issued their own LP in conjunction with the mismanaged Hallmark holiday known as Record Store Day. Now available at reasonable prices on the second-hand market of discogs.com, Solar Live 11.15.13 is a full-length rendition of the Solar Motel suite, an arcing and atmospheric four-part jam with crystal vistas and uncanny valley space-outs. And, while the November 15th show isn’t currently streamable, there’s always the NYC Taper rendition of the suite from September at the Hopscotch Festival, and/or another three versions on the band’s Soundcloud page, and why not collect them all, really? The “Dark Star”-like appeal of “Solar Motel” is also a fine reminder of the unbroken network of live music archivists that has existed since the early ’70s, providing an authentically alternative distribution system for artists creating music interesting enough to be worth documenting.

Every local music scene has someone like Glenn Mercer of Haledon, New Jersey, often more content to play in his basement and burn a few CD-Rs than he is to inform anyone that he is engaging in either of those activities. That Mercer is one of the leaders of beloved indie progenitors The Feelies is immaterial. Recorded a few years ago and sold at recent Feelies gigs, the 16 solo instrumental tracks comprising the casual non-release Incidental Hum channel the spacious guitar harmonies that gripped the Feelies’ similarly off-grid Willies project in the early ’80s. Mercer fills out tremolo exotica (“Moss Pt.”), spaghetti western drum machine boogies (“29 Palms”), and a few covers, including a hat tip to Brian Eno’s “Here Come The Warm Jets,” whose soaring melody provides the guitarist’s keynote.

Prolific New Zealand underground hero Chris Knox’s musical output has been a little bit slow for the past few years, so the first Tall Dwarfs show in more than a half-decade this August would be a cause for celebration anyway. As it is, Knox continues to recover from a 2009 stroke, making the event even more triumphant. Knox has made several appearances as his musical and lingual bearings return to him, and released one recording to date, and only as a limited edition 7-inch in 2012, a song titled “Gargarin” (above) with members of the band Rackets and credited to Knoxious. It is an extraordinarily powerful channel of Knox’s spirit, the transformative glee bursting unbidden from the song’s non-language and accompanying video. Lately, Knox has been making visual art again, too, contributing new works to a (hopefully) forthcoming collection, Grafix Knox. It remains to be seen if someone will record the upcoming Tall Dwarfs reunion or if Knox will again release new music with his fellow Dwarf Alec Bathgate, but — if either happens — it won’t arrive via the popular channels soon enough, if it ever does at all.