To Western ears, there are few sounds eerier than the low-frequency groans and drones of traditional Tuvan throat singing. A technique also known as overtone singing, its mechanics have been widely discussed elsewhere and we won’t get into all the specifics styles and variations here. We’ll just say, when practiced by masters of the form like Albert Kuvezin, it’s basically the vocal equivalent of a really cool sleight-of-hand trick. He’s singing in two different frequencies! And one of them is, like, super-super-low! How the hell does he do that?
However he does it, Kuvezin has helped popularize the Tuvan style of throat singing through two groups: the more traditional Huun-Huur-Tu (which he quit shortly after helping to form the band in the early ’90s), and Yat-Kha, which mixes traditional Tuvan and Mongolian folk instruments with guitars and electronics. His original partner in Yat-Kha was Ivan Sokolovsky, a Russian avant-garde musician and composer who found lots of creative new settings for Kuvezin’s highly distinctive take on throat singing (which he calls “kanzat kargyraa”). Here, for example, is the title track from their 1995 album Yenisei Punk, a dizzying mix of flamenco rhythms, rock guitar and Kuvezin’s hypnotic chants:
Actually, Sokolovsky had quit Yat-Kha by the time of Yenisei Punk; the project is now primarily Kuvezin’s, along with a rotating cast of supporting drummers, bassists, guitarists and players of more traditional instruments like the morin khuur. But Sokolovsky’s influence over the band looms large.
Yat-Kha’s most famous release is probably 2005’s Re-Covers, an eclectic collection of Tuvanized versions of popular rock songs, from “Ramblin’ Man” to Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” When we shared their amazing version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” last month, several readers noted that the Yat-Kha version of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” is even more powerful—and you’re not wrong, people, but that track is unfortunately only available on subscription sites like Spotify. So you’ll have to settle for their version of Iron Butterfly’s ridiculous proto-prog-rock epic, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which is not as awesome as “Levee” but definitely gets bonus points for being one of the weirdest uses of throat singing ever, especially when they give the song a little bit of a Johnny Cash-style boom-chicka-boom cowboy rhythm.
Yat-Kha hasn’t released any new music since their a 2011 live album, Live at the Stray Dog. But they still tour pretty actively, at least in Russia and Eastern Europe, and will hopefully get back into the studio again one of these days. Until then, we’ll leave you with this live video from a 2013 performance in Poland. Is it just us, or does Albert sound a bit like Rammstein‘s Till Lindemann when he’s singing in rock mode? Now there’s a collaboration we’d like to hear.
How many weird bands are there in France, anyway? It’s like half the population over there traded in their Serge Gainsbourg records for some Captain Beefheart and Mr. Bungle. Yesterday a French reader named Laurent sent us yet another list of weird French bands, and yet again, we’d never heard of half of them. If you guys keep this up, we may need to open up a satellite office in Paris. You know, with our millions of blog dollars.
Anyway, among the many excellent bands Laurent suggested we check out is an experimental rock trio from Metz called Le Singe Blanc, which is apparently French for “The White Monkey.” They kind of sound like what might happen if a post-punk/math-rock band was started by a bunch of Muppets. Here’s the video for their song “Gru,” which you should really not watch if you love birds.
The universe really did not want me to see Kirin J Callinan at the Echoplex last night. First, I wasn’t on the guest list as promised by his label. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m about to be unemployed so I’m trying to avoid frivolous expenditures like weird band concerts. I was about to spring for the $20 when a woman who had arrived just behind me said, “Want to be my plus-one?” So maybe the universe was on my side last night after all.
But then, just as Callinan was about to go on, I got sucked into a bizarre debate about the biological and ethical imperatives of veganism with my new friend at the bar, which in the Echoplex is at the very back of the venue, approximately one million feet from the stage. “Humans didn’t evolve to be carnivores,” my guest list savior was explaining to me and two other women she had just met at the bar. “We don’t have carnivore teeth. Our stomach acids can’t break down animal protein. I’m going to send you a YouTube video of a lecture on this. It’s all been proven scientifically.” Meanwhile, Callinan was setting up his guitar pedals, dressed in a white silk kimono, as though he had just wandered in from a spa. Even under the kimono, he looked paradoxically both gaunt and muscular. I wondered if he was vegan.
I escaped the veganism debate just in time to score a spot right up against the stage right drum riser, where the thunder of the drummer’s kick drum made my non-carnivore teeth rattle. It was so loud next to the drums that I couldn’t even tell you what the first song was, but it was rivetingly intense and aggressive. Live, Callinan has the tightly coiled stage presence (and impressively large, imperious schnoz) of a young Pete Townshend. I feared for the safety of a heckler who kept yelling, “Take it off!” “You want it?” Callinan shot back, fingering the collar of his kimono. It was unclear whether the “it” was the kimono or Callinan’s nakedness. “You can start by buying me a drink, don’t you think? I’m serious.” (The heckler did not buy him a drink.)
Callinan’s three-piece backing band—drums, bass, keyboards—had clearly been instructed to remain entirely expressionless. The drummer, a sinewy German whose name was either Hunter or Gunter, had an impressive knack for staring out into the audience and not moving his head at all, even when the rest of him was wailing away on a particularly frenzied passage. Even when Callinan introduced the band—the keyboard player, it turned out, was his younger brother—not one of them cracked so much as a smirk.
The brute force of “Come On USA” certainly knocked the audience back on its heels a bit—”Very Marilyn Manson!” one person exclaimed—but for me, it was the gentler songs that best showcased Callinan’s talents, both as a crafter of melody and as an emotive, room-silencing performer. “Victoria M.” is every bit the New Wave anthem live that it is on record, and “Landslide” is a broken-hearted hymn worthy of Leonard Cohen. When Callinan starts to howl, “The stars are all dirt, and God is in the water, and Hell is right here on Earth,” you catch a glimpse of what a superstar this guy might become.
Did he eventually take off that kimono, and also his shirt? Of course he did. Every Kirin J Callinan performance, as near as I can tell, has a bit of a striptease quality to it. Before he even played a note, he began the show by taking off a pair of white gloves.
Callinan ended the show, as I’d hoped he would, with “The Toddler,” his hilarious a cappella number sung from the point of view of a swaggering two-year-old who brags, “All the pre-school cougars wanna get with me, they’re nearly twice my age!” The crowd helped him keep the beat by clapping along, but we couldn’t quite figure out how to help him sing the chorus, though he kept asking us to. Kirin J Callinan isn’t really the type of performer one sings along with.
I have to end this review by thanking my new concert buddy, Karrie from Minneapolis. We may never agree on veganism, Karrie, but next time you’re in L.A., I owe you a plus-one!
For some performers, the weird is not something they rinse off after the show. Their weirdness runs soul-deep. Such a performer is this week’s artiste, Australia’s Kirin J. Callinan.
We first discovered Callinan through the Beggars Group, probably the closest thing us weirdos have to a major label. Among the Beggars Group’s many imprints is a newish label called Terrible Records, which also recently became home to rap provocateur and Weird List inductee Le1f. Who’da thunk our new favorite label would be co-founded by one of the guys from Grizzly Bear?
Anyway, Beggars sent out a press release a couple months back announcing Callinan as the opening act for fellow antipodean eccentric Connan Mockasin on an upcoming U.S. tour (dates below). So right away, we were intrigued. Then we read this, about a video he just shot in New York for YoursTru.ly: “Never one to bore, the video features Kirin getting interviewed whilst being massaged (a non-negotiable requirement of his interview policy).” So now we were really intrigued. Non-negotiable massages? Who is this guy?
Sure enough, in the YoursTru.ly video, there’s Callinan, getting worked over on a massage table as he talks about his childhood (“My parents would offer me two dollars for any report that didn’t say ‘easily distracted'; I don’t think they ever gave me any money”). Then he goes into an awkward yet oddly compelling solo piano performance of a song called “Victoria M.” Before you watch the YoursTru.ly video, I recommend starting with the original:
That’s the campiest of Callinan’s videos, but it’s far from the weirdest. That honor probably goes to “Way to War,” a flickering, mostly black-and-white video in which a series of disturbing tableaux appear to be seen through a broken View-Master. It won something called the J Award in Australia for Best Music Video in 2012.
As you can probably tell from those two tracks, Callinan’s style is pretty eclectic. But they really only hint at the range of his 2013 debut album, Embracism. Over the course of 10 tracks, he tackles everything from minimalist electronic noise to stately, Leonard Cohen-esque hymns to turgid, quasi-industrial freakouts like the amazing “Come On USA,” which somehow manages to name-check Springsteen while still sounding like Ministry. Vocally, his rubbery baritone owes a lot to avant-garde singer-songwriter Scott Walker; in an interview with V Magazine, he admitted that it wasn’t until he heard Walker that became confident in his own singing abilities. “It’s over the top and ridiculous,” he says of his own singing. But hearing Walker, he told V, “validated, in a sense, that vision I had of my own voice. I wasn’t ready for anyone to hear it before.”
Callinan’s music is so compelling he almost doesn’t need a backstory, but we’ll give you a brief one anyway: He got his start as the guitarist in a surprisingly conventional post-punk band called Mercy Arms, but quit over creative differences with the band’s singer. He briefly did improvisational tribal/ambient rock with a loose collective of musicians called Fashion Launches Rocket Launches, but apparently the collective was too loose to stay together long. In the same interview with V Magazine, he says his solo career started after the end of a long relationship, which might explain the raw-nerve quality of his music.
Most descriptions of Callinan’s live shows seem to focus on how he likes to get naked, or at least strip down to his skivvies. But based on the few good clips we’ve been able to find online, these descriptions seem to overstate Callinan’s nudist tendencies. Yes, there’s something overtly sexual about Callinan’s music and stage presence, but there’s also a lot of humor, goofy charm and a genuinely innocent quality, too. He might just be taking his clothes off because it gets hot up there. Or he wants to feel free. Anyone who finds his bare skin either confrontational or vulnerable might be projecting a bit.
We’ll leave you with Callinan’s most recent video, for one of Embracism‘s loveliest songs, “Landslide.” It’s actually an incredibly simple setup, but the effect, combined with Kirin’s aching baritone, is pretty disconcerting, no?
Kirin J. Callinan’s U.S. tour dates (all with Connan Mockasin):
4/28 Washington, DC – Rock and Roll Hotel
4/29 Philadelphia, PA – Boot & Saddle
4/30 Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
5/1 New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
5/2 Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall Of Williamsburg
5/4 Montreal, QUE – Cabaret Mile End
5/5 Toronto, ONT – Lee’s Palace
5/7 Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle
5/11 Seattle, WA – Barboza
5/12 Vancouver, BC – Electric Owl
5/13 Portland, OR – Doug Fir Lounge
5/15 San Francisco, CA – Independent
5/16 Los Angeles, CA – Echoplex
Lots of bands make use of toy instruments, but apart from our old “toytronica” friend Twink, we’ve never met anyone more committed to toying around than Igor Krutogolov. His 10-piece group plays all of their music exclusively on stuff aimed at the six-and-under set: toy guitars, toy drum kits, toy clarinets, teeny little accordions and xylophones and glockenspiels and things that squeak when you squeeze them. All of which sounds adorable, right? Except they somehow manage to twist those instruments into infectious but slightly menacing grooves with hints of punk, jazz, klezmer and even metal, over which Krutogolov groans and growls like an old blues singer with lungs full of cigarettes. It’s like a Tom Waits concert broke out at Toys “R” Us.
Krutogolov’s band, alternately referred to as the Karate Band or the Toy Orchestra, is based in Israel and released their first album, Children 4 Muzik, back in 2005. Then they went on a long hiatus so Krutogolov could focus on other projects, including his equally weird avant-klezmer band, Kruzenshtern i Parohod. But the toys kept calling to him, so this year he’s brought the Karate Band/Toy Orchestra back with a brand-new album, How to Be a Crocodile.
The music on How to Be a Crocodile is so much fun we can hardly stand it: playful, dark, funny, funky and nasty-sounding in a way that totally defies its toy instrumentation. Here’s a video from one of the album’s recording sessions, for the song “Mad Medow.” Sounds like the best cartoon villain theme song ever, doesn’t it?
And here’s a recent live performance of the Crocodile track “Skeleton Dance,” which bears little resemblance to the Carl Stalling music from the old Disney cartoon:
- Igor Krutogolov’s Karate Band (Toy Orchestra) on Facebook
- How to Be a Crocodile on Bandcamp
- Kruzenshtern i Parohod official site
- Auris Media Records (label for all of Krutogolov’s various projects)
So the other day, Travis from backwoods clatter-punks The Chewers writes us and is all like, “Our second album Chuckle Change And Also has just been released on real-life CD through Cimmerian Shade Recordings, fully mastered. Will you tell the kids about it?” And we were all like, “Hells yeah we will! An album released on CD? I hear that shit is the new vinyl! Everyone’s gonna want a copy cuz it’s all retro.”
But seriously, the new CD has cool artwork and four live bonus tracks and at eight bucks plus free shipping in the U.S., it’s a pretty good deal for a piece of technology that’s only somewhat obsolete.* If you wanna be all 21st century about it, you can also buy a digital download of the album for five bucks. But get the CD so you can wave it around when The Chewers blow up and be all, “I was into them back when people still bought CDs, bitches!“
Anyway, both CD and download are available via the Cimmerian Shade website, which calls The Chewers “mind-melting, idiosyncratic, Beefheartian punk from the outer limits.” Wish we’d come up with that. Has a much nicer ring to it than “a couple of tattooed hillbillies who decided to retire early from the bathtub speed trade and form a band based on the Residents and Tom Waits records they found at a yard sale in Wheeling.” That was the best we could come up with when they won our Weird Band Poll back in April ’13. Bit long-winded in retrospect.
Let’s play this post out with a sample of Chuckle Change And Also‘s fully mastered charms. This is called “Smiling Samuel” and I’m pretty sure it’s about a guy I used to work with at the DMV.
When I think of Chicago, I think of deep dish pizza, Da Bears, Ferris Bueller, and that one time I bumped into Trent Reznor at O’Hare (true story). I certainly don’t think of weird music, but I may need to recalibrate my mental image of Da Chi. The city that gave us Wesley Willis and Jan Terri seems to be a reliable breeding ground for eccentric musical artistes. And carrying on in that grand tradition is the mysterious duo called Univore.
Univore first surfaced in 2010 with an album called Casale Project, which set the occasionally poetic ramblings of Italian-born artist Marco Casale to a series of breezy jazz/prog/disco/space-rock instrumentals. The music on Casale Project is semi-weird at best—though it does feature the occasional out-of-left-field blast of Love Supreme saxophone—but Marco Casale is a wonder, over-enunciating in his thick Mediterranean accent about America’s hair (“is like wheat on fire!”) and the dude he’s gonna bust up for stealing his bicycle seat. And when Univore started casting Casale is a series of zero-budget videos—all, for no apparent reason, with Asian subtitles—well, shit just got crazy in the best possible way.
Now it’s important to note that Casale is merely a guest vocalist and that, really, Univore is the work of two gentlemen by the names of David Bachmann and Nicholas Flandro. They describe themselves as a “media production duo” who are available (according to their website) for “original music, video production, content creation, ideating, as well as art direction and copywriting.” If I ever find myself stuck in O’Hare again (and Trent Reznor is nowhere to be found), I know who I’m calling when I’m in need of some ideating.
In addition to Casale Project, Univore have released two other albums: Love Letters, a 2011 concept album made up of “letters of affection to various fictional women” and Beasts From a Silk Womb, a “confluence of apocalyptic imagery” masquerading as makeout music from the ’70s. Here, for example, is a shag-run and lava-lamp jam about how we’re destroying the planet. Our technological advances will be our ultimate undoing, am I right, ladies??
Love Letters and Beasts From a Silk Womb don’t feature the campy vocal stylings of Mr. Casale, but Bachmann and and Flandro clearly know a good thing when they’ve found one and have been careful to cast the photogenic DeNiro/Aeillo lookalike in all their videos. Last year, they finally did a proper reunion with him and created a one-off song and short film called “I Dream the Video,” which is almost too well-produced for its own good. It left us longing for the simpler pleasures of their masterpiece, “Champagne Taste,” which against all reason and logic is impossible to stop watching. As one YouTube commenter put it: “Oh, no! I shouldn’t be watching this video.”
P.S. Many thanks to new reader Jake Kirby for turning us on to the unique charms of Univore, along with several other weird artists. Sorry we didn’t pick Hasil Adkins, Jake. Maybe next time.