Going Vinyl: The Necks

The world needs to hear The Necks. I say this not merely on the grounds that over the span of 18 albums they’ve managed to keep things fresh, but because it is a rare treat to come across an act that is as unclassifiable as they are inherently listenable. I’ll be the first to admit my tendency to dismiss jazz. Sure, I’ve spent some Sunday afternoons with Coleman, Coltrane, Davis and the likes – maybe throwing in a little Sun Ra for good measure – but discovering The Necks was discovering a reimagined form of jazz that, although being niche, succeeded in bringing seemingly disparate sonic worlds into harmony.

I’ve no compass for contemporary jazz, whether it’s free-jazz, fusion, improv, whatever… I’d be hard pressed to name five acts. However, sitting in this comfortable chair while the dying minute of “Rum Jungle,” the A side from 2011’s Mindset, is filling the room with a glorious cacophony, I can almost guarantee that there isn’t another trio out there that sounds quite like The Necks.

The_Necks_Band2

The band is from Australia, made up of Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (stand-up bass), and at first glance they appear as conventional an act as any behind their purely acoustic set-up. However, within the first 10 minutes of one of their albums or concerts (the trio building a bit of a reputation as must-see performers), one gets the sense that The Necks are making music that is uniquely their own. A typical Necks album is roughly an hour, generally starting slowly: a bass pluck here, a piano note there. Over the duration of their pieces, a long, shallow arc begins to materialize in the listener’s perception. The exact nature of the arc, and its unfolding, is different every time, and so, the resultant music, though immediately recognizable, is never predictable.

Four years ago The Necks released their first LP on vinyl, and just weeks ago their second. Today, Alcohol the Seed looks at how the band have had to adapt to the format, and whether or not something fundamental to their sound has been lost as a result.

The_Necks_Mindset

The Necks – Mindset
ReR Megacorp/Fish of Milk, 2011

As old as the cd itself is the argument of its superiority for presenting long, uninterrupted pieces of music. It is true. A slab of vinyl simply cannot contain a typical Necks piece without being split into two or three sections, likely compromising the band’s intent for how one should experience that piece. The easy way around this? Produce shorter tracks.

The Necks have done just that, their dry run being 2006’s Chemist, followed by Mindset in 2011, which saw the band’s first foray into vinyl with a digestible 22 minutes per side. The energy behind Mindset is palpable, especially in an immediate sense. “Rum Jungle” is the band’s most spirited offeringhardly letting up its mélange of bombastic drumming, bass swells and fluttering piano throughout. The latter half even brings a heavily distorted guitar into the mix, a rare use of the instrument from the band. The flip sees The Necks slow things down with “Daylights,” creaking forward eerily from a primordial stew, as though harkening to the origins of life. Midway through Tony Buck’s drums creep in, not to keep time but to elongate it with a simmering, skittered propulsion of brushes over skins. Chris Abrahams remains stoic behind the keys, giving enough way for percussive scrapes and ambiguous tactile rumblings to surface and worm their way through. It all comes to an almost too abrupt end with a signifying cymbal crash.

The_Necks_Vertigo

The Necks – Vertigo
Northern Spy, 2015

Vertigo is The Necks’ recent LP, and as a single 44 minute work, feels less suited to the vinyl format. As an album, Mindset felt tailormade for vinyl, the band channeling their process – a large part of which is improvised – into a much shorter frame of time. The result was The Necks at the top of their game, harnessing a sense of clarity that expunged any chance of unnecessary meandering – something 2013’s Open was somewhat guilty of.

Similarly, Vertigo’s main fault is its tendency to stray from a cohesive narrative. The unpredictability of the trio has always been seeded in the sounds themselves, but one always had a sense of where the band was going. Lately, it’s felt more up in the air on all fronts, except for the assurance of the sound of a retracting tone arm from a record player at the very end.

The Necks: Official
The Necks: Live

The New Year: The Kadane Brothers Post-Bedhead

In terms of music, the Kadane brothers were attached at birth. Together, they formed slowcore giants Bedhead at the dawn of the 90s, a colossal decade for music both in America and abroad. Grunge was in full force on the northwest coast, the 2nd-gen emo movement was ramping up in the midwest, and My Bloody Valentine, Lush, and similar shoegazers were well into entrancing audiences with reverie-inducing vocals set to a backdrop of distorted guitars. After their third and final album, Transaction De Novo, from 1998, Bedhead faded into relative obscurity. Three years later the Kadanes emerged again as The New Year with Mike Donofrio and Codeine’s Chris Brokaw.

The Kadanes have hit the three album mark once again, and though it looked like The New Year, too, would call it quits there, the band recently teased on social media that a new album is in the works. That’s welcome news to fans who’ve waited seven years since their last LP. Until then, here is a rundown of The New Year’s full length albums to date.

The_New_Year_Newness_Ends

The New Year – Newness Ends
Touch and Go, 2001

In Mark Richardson’s excellent Pitchfork review of the Bedhead boxset that was released nearly a year ago on Numero Group, he posits that the first album you ever hear from the band will likely become your favourite in the end. Strangely, in my case, that came true for both Bedhead and The New Year. Newness Ends, however, was the last album I heard from the band, and remains the most elusive to these ears. Kadane albums have a track record for slipperiness, often taking weeks of listening to take shape. This is one of the band’s most admiral qualities, consistently bringing you back in order to figure it out, as if their albums are a puzzle that one needs to exercise intense focus in cracking.

All things considered, The New Year are less slippery than Bedhead. This is in part, not only to the added instrumentation – mainly piano – but to the origins of New Year songs coming from drum parts and developing from there (the Kadane’s have revealed in interviews that Bedhead songs originated almost exclusively from guitar parts). I’d argue that starting with drums rather than guitars will give a band a bigger, more rock-oriented sound, as percussion suddenly becomes central to every song rather than something that’s added later to compliment existing sounds. Matt Kadane’s signature speak/sing vocals interestingly counterpoint the adopted heavier sound, providing many of the kick-driven tracks with an airiness, and keeping the mood light.

Kadane projects seem almost hellbent on being “album” bands – Wilco, too, comes to mind – where the idea of a standout song quickly evaporates. Releasing singles, too, seems almost pointless other than to provide more exposure, as any given song heard in isolation couldn’t possibly give a real indication of the band’s vision. For example, “Reconstruction,” with its infectious intertwining guitar parts, is given more potency budding heads with “Gasoline,” an, if not somewhat tongue-in-cheek, kind of love/hate relationship song about the petroleum product we know so well. As the debut album for their new band, the Kadanes proved they never lost their virtuoso respect for the album as an artistic artifact.

The_New_Year_End_Is_Near

The New Year – The End is Near
Touch and Go, 2004

The End is Near is The New Year’s masterpiece. I tend to think of this record as the sister album to Whatfunlifewas, mainly because both were my first listens and eventual favourites from either band, respectively. Also, both albums have similar 7+ minute sprawling centerpiece tracks, The End is Near with “18,” and whatfunlifewas with “Powder.” Of the Kadane’s respective discographies only a few songs have bridged that seven minute mark.

If there was any doubt that The New Year was expanding on the Bedhead sound, the opening piano/keyboard phrase of the album’s title track casts that doubt out the window. The album doesn’t really get going, however, until the third track, “Chinese Handcuffs,” luring the listener in with a bass line that’s down right funky before breaking into an instrumental flurry midway through. The chunk of songs that make up the middle of the album are The New Year at their finest. “Plan B” kicks off with a very simple, Bedhead-esque guitar pattern while Kadane almost moans together the lines “This isn’t breaking my back / but my spirit,” and the rest of the band comes in strong until the end. “Disease” slows things down again, because, ultimately, the band is never in a rush to take their songs anywhere but where they naturally end up. “Age of Conceit” crackles to life after the lines “give me back my childhood / but let me keep my beard / I’ll be the freakish little man” in what is probably the best closing statement the band has made on any song. “Start” is the closest head-nodding rock song among the lot with an opening minute that make you want to hit repeat, setting up the aforementioned “18” and the album’s intimate closer “Stranger Is Kindness.”

Listened back upon with the luxury of eleven years since its release, The End is Near is easily The New Year’s most concise and profound record.

The_New_Year_The_New_Year

The New Year – The New Year
Touch and Go, 2008

Before settling into years of marginal activity, The New Year released their self-titled third album, capping a span of releases that showcased the band’s commitment to their unique sound. Growth in their sound over the years isn’t obvious, rather, The New Year seemed committed to an idea from the beginning, tweaking that idea ever so slightly with every release. Whether this was the result of keen deliberation or a natural outcome to the artistic processes behind the music, is left, at least partly, up for debate. Perhaps more will be revealed about the band’s process in the days leading to and following their long overdue fourth album. Either way, the consistency of the Kadanes should be the envy of most, if not all, contemporary bands on the mellower side of the rock spectrum–whether they know about the band or not.

There has always been a kind of living room philosophy to Matt Kadane’s song writing, a comfortable blandness addressing everyday encounters, the monotony of the working man, and the ebb and flow of human relationship. That’s not to say the song writing is boring, but that it refrains from falling into the trap of unnecessary idealism. If all this translates to the band being, in one way or another, “grounded,” then The New Year is the band’s most grounded record. After all, in a musician’s career that’s culminated to more than half a dozen albums, plenty of touring experience, and a dedicated fan base, what better place is there to be than staring straight ahead with feet firmly on the ground?

The New Year Official Website
The New Year at Discogs
The New Year on Facebook