Alternate Routes: Thom Yorke, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Tuareg “Purple Rain”


Alternate Routes is a column from Flavorwire contributor and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow, in which he provides maps to far-flung music, exploring sounds distributed solely outside the Big 3 of Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

Perhaps Spotify’s most grievous sin against music, besides its royalty rates, is how boring it is. Besides sales revenues, fidelity, and production credits, the streaming service makes albums feel as if they were trapped inside a listening station at the mall, or worse. There is the paucity of metadata that shuffles long discographies by corporate licensing dates, erasing albums outside the company’s territorial agreements, and deeming artists’ histories as irrelevant to their precious content. In terms of providing hot-and-cold running audio for the regions of the world covered by the relevant sub-clauses, Spotify is a miraculous utility, but is as divorced from real-life musical networks as a glass of water is from a rainstorm.

Anyway, that’s the rat-in-a-cage rage that one might imagine Thom Yorke feeling in deciding to release his quietly satisfying new album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, via BitTorrent. “Do artifacts have politics?” Langdon Winner asked somewhat rhetorically in his influential 1980 essay. The answer is “of course,” and just as Thom and his scruff have shown up for climate summits, it is nice to see them show up for independent music, as well. Not coincidentally, Radiohead’s most recent original recordings — eight atmospheric instrumental fragments — came via the alternative channel of their phone app, Polyfauna, though were quickly converted by fans into YouTube videos. It is not that BitTorrent is the answer, and it might not be the answer for anyone else, but it’s a tangible way to shape the terms with which the note-filled data goes out. In Yorke’s case, it is perhaps less a stunt than a frame, like a Pink Floyd quadrophonic mix that demands to be taken seriously whether or not one wants to give them the satisfaction of doing so. No matter how one interprets it, it’s a nice reminder of the internet’s promise of a direct line between musicians and fans, a happily unsettled valley that remains an alternative to iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

One point that Yorke (and others) miss, though, is that BitTorrent isn’t the future of music. For many, it is already the present, not as a source of direct income but a matter of existence. Free BitTorrent trackers like Dimeadozen feature not only the predictable reams of legacy acts and rare treats from the ever-giving past, but a breathtaking array of live music from the present. It is a model that jambands have relied on for years: self-propelling fan networks that promote live appearances and live revenue.

It’s not for everyone. It requires acts that place an emphasis on live performance and listeners willing to deal with large-sized, high-fidelity FLAC and SHN files. BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies are merely digital iterations of long-standing tape-sharing circles that power a different kind of musical economy, whose mainstream is represented by the main-stages of festivals and fruitful careers on the club circuit. With no set release schedules or genre boundaries, Dimeadozen’s listings are a browser’s delight. A scroll through only the past few days of postings as of this writing includes fresh shows by new country hero Sturgill Simpson, Scottish electricians Chvrches, a solo Nick Cave (in a fan-made soundboard/audience mix), the reunited Replacements, British punk godfathers The Fall, big-chooglin’ UK young’ns Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Boy George with the BBC Philharmonic, and a selection of thrash-metal acts, among many others.

Beyond just live souvenirs, however, Dimeadozen’s recent recordings offer half-buried treasures that constitute unofficial albums by themselves. There is, for example, a set recorded last May at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan by the legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and captured from the Red Bull Music Academy’s webstream. It was the rare night where the right combination of elements supported the notoriously erratic Scratch (specifically, a backing band including New York’s Subatomic Sound System, a pair of live-mixing producers including Afrian Sherwood, and old-school Jamaican vocalists the Congos) and someone made a great recording. Giving Perry a dubby, goopy Duppy groove, it is almost impossible to tell who is playing what or how, but the band bounces, and Scratch’s toasted toasting on “Million Dollar Weekend” and elsewhere is just another layer in a pad of cooing vocals, horns, stereo countermelodies, and snare echoes. It not so much that the show is better than anything Perry has released in years (though it probably is) but that it functions as a wonderful modern dub recording by itself, a complex document that warrants and rewards repeated listens. Similarly, fans of modern jazz will find plenty to love on Dimeadozen, such as a recent outing by the saxophonist Sabir Mateen and a pair of Italian percussionists recorded from a European radio broadcast last December. Across three improvisations, Davide Merlino’s vibraphone acts as an otherworldly intermediary between Mateen’s star-lit saxophone unvalvings and Andrea Cocco’s drums.

Also growing from the old networks — though far more accessible than BitTorrent — is the much-loved NYCTaper, whose big ears have documented a vital slice of Manhattan music since 2007. For the past few years, a contingent from the site has traveled to the eclectic Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out among Raleigh’s clubs this year, taper Jonas Blank caught a set of mostly new and unrecorded material by solo guitarist/electrician Haley Fohr, the Chicago musician who makes rich and often quiet music as Circuit des Yeux, that took on a darker and richer and more human dimension than any studio recording could. As heard on NYCTaper, Fohr’s new songs unexpectedly transform into barbed, noisy shouts as she faces as disinterested crowd, a knock-down drag-out catharsis that is as uncomfortable as Fohr’s recent Overdue is pleasing. “It pains me to listen to this set,” Fohr wrote on her blog in an entry called “Drowning in a Sea”, embedding the recording, “[but] I think it is important for people to hear.” It is one performance from Blank’s overflowing bounty. There is a lo-fi joint appearance between Philadelphia stoner-punk comrades Spacin’ and Purling Hiss (including an appearance by versatile guitarist Steve Gunn and harpist Mary Lattimore), virtual tapes of mainstage sets by Spoon and the jam-friendly War on Drugs, and a short and spritely duo performance by the magnificent young Nashville songwriter Caitlin Rose accompanied living room-style by Megafaun guitarist Phil Cook and another unfortunately chatty crowd.

But the cream of NYCTaper’s Hopscotch recordings comes from a unique partnership with the North Carolina-based Three-Lobed Recordings, who stage an annual day-show featuring one-off collaborations and jams, this year including cool and refreshing weird Americana by Daniel Bachman and Nathenial Bowles, as well as a 27-minute excursion by a reconvened five-piece Sunburned Hand of the Man, zoning into hypnotic climbs, spontaneous song-forms, quick disintegrations, and full-force charges. Gone now from the NYCTaper site, however, is one of the festival’s most intriguing ensembles: the debut of the Little Black Egg Big Band, a quintet consisting of Yo La Tengo, guitarists Steve Gunn and William Tyler, and contributions from the ailing Letha Rodman Melchior. Grown from Georgia Hubley’s Little Black Egg solo guitar LP titled Buzzard’s Beak (released only via Yo La Tengo’s in-house Egon Records and now out-of-print), the Big Band shimmers towards an unseen horizon, expanding into a dark cloud mass that only gets darker as it grows. Available for seven days only via NYCTaper, the recording was a benefit for Melchior, who passed away only weeks later. The Little Black Egg Big Band set constitutes an almost perfect non-album, a complex requiem for a passing force.

Though revenues may’ve grown tighter for nearly every class of musician around the world, the possibility for movement of ideas and even money seems greater than ever. Paths to global listenership have always been convoluted, with music wending through increasingly larger networks until perhaps emerging someplace else, as if from a wormhole. Take Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band, a symbol of modern musical ethnomusicology: a fuzzed-out Thai street ensemble uploaded to YouTube, discovered by the Dangerous Minds blog, contacted via Facebook, and now covered by a site sponsored by an energy drink. Or, for example, the Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman, who found not only an American audience (via hep Seattle label Sublime Frequencies) but a sympathetic collaborator in Kieran Hebden, the producer known as Four Tet.

Perhaps the next such artist to make the jump from far-off origins to worldwide consciousness will be the soulful Auto-Tuned Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar. Like Souleyman, Moctar is in large part a wedding singer. Unlike Souleyman, he’s an actor — he has an upcoming starring role in Akounak Tedalt Taha Tazoughai (Rain the Color of Blue With A Little Red In It), the first-ever Tuareg-language fiction film, which also happens to be a remake of Purple Rain. Playing Prince’s role of The Kid will only be a further coronation for Moctar, though. Around 2008, his formally unreleased tracks became wildly popular among the SIM card-trading music lovers of West Africa, first compiled on Sahel Sounds’ Music From Saharan Cell Phones. The label now presents an American release of the tracks as the full-length Anar. On songs like “Achinane” and “Asshet Akal,” Moctar fits his rhythms in above pulsing drum machines. But, unlike Souleyman’s cassettes, Anar suggests no need for modernization, the metallic curvature of the Auto-Tune stretching Moctar’s voice over the Tuareg drone strings with a sleek and mysterious appeal, the harmony of a rare and different place.