We talk a lot about how music moves us — how it can make us smile with nostalgia, cry over a broken heart, dance with wild abandon or even occasionally infuriate us. A somewhat less heralded effect, but one I cherish, is music’s ability to weird us out.
Think about it: Have you ever heard a piece of music that sounded so strange it actually made you uncomfortable? Have you felt a twinge of paranoia or a nameless anxiety brought on by a collection of sounds you didn’t understand?
Unsurprisingly, most folks tend to change the dial, so to speak, when they hear music that disturbs or challenges them. For some music fans, however, things don’t get interesting until they get weird.
The first time I encountered the Residents, I was truly put off. The San Francisco art collective/avant-garde band makes music that, on first listen, almost made me queasy. A friend of mine in high school — one of those kids who was always listening to stuff no one else had heard of — played me “Voices of the Air” from the band’s 1981 record March of the Mole. At that point in my life, I pretty much only cared about indie rock and hip-hop, so trying to get through the track felt like some kind of CIA torture.
Something bizarre happened after a few listens, though. I didn’t stop feeling weird about the music, but I did come to enjoy and even seek out that feeling of bewilderment. The mystery of listening to music that I didn’t understand and couldn’t predict intrigued me. So I delved into records such as Jackie-O Motherfucker‘s Fig. 5 and Scott Walker‘s 1995 opus Tilt, simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the dissonance, the ambience and the overall otherworldliness of the sounds.
Perhaps because of the air of otherness that experimental and ambient music possesses, those records always felt exotic, as if they could have been created only in the most avant-garde of scenes. Imagine my surprise and delight to discover that not only do Vermont musicians produce a ton of top-rate experimental music, but they also perform their pieces live, often in unorthodox venues.
Percussionist JB Ledoux, aka Jo Bled, is kicking off a series of experimental music performances at Burlington’s Community of Sound space titled “radical/love/DRUM.” The series’ first installment, on Saturday, February 4, features Jo Bled, free jazz drummer Michael Larocca and central Vermont improv trio Glacial Erratics.
“This show is not only the best experimental drum showcase in town, it is the only experimental drum showcase in town,” Ledoux wrote in an email.
Ledoux, whose recent work has centered on his use of the frottoir, a washboard-like percussion instrument worn as a vest, describes “radical/love/DRUM” as a rare chance to glimpse some of the area’s most out-there percussionists.
“There is a vibrant community of experimental drummers who are pushing the limits of performance, composition and improvisation,” Ledoux wrote. “We intend to present them all.”
Experimental music is also alive and well in East Montpelier, the home of cassette label Histamine Tapes. I’ve reviewed many of the imprint’s releases and am always blown away by the strange, effortlessly cool vibe of the albums that label founder Nick Dentico collects, curates and sometimes creates himself.
What Histamine offers is unique in the state: a label dedicated to lo-fi experimental music. Recent releases include the self-titled 2022 recording by Another Dark December, a dark, drone-filled album about being a resident of Alert, Nunavut, in Canada, the northernmost inhabited place in the world; and Dentico’s own On a River in the Ocean, which showcases ambient baritone guitar and field recordings.
Histamine’s cassettes are always visually striking, as befits the label’s underground, too-cool-for-school vibe. Dentico often cuts and splices bits of ephemera, such as technical manuals or forgotten brochures, into striking pieces of unrecognizable art, matching the almost alien sounds on the tapes.
The latest Histamine release is a perfect starting point for those looking to lean into the weird a little more. Histamine Tapes 2023 is a primer of sorts, featuring nine teaser tracks from the label’s upcoming releases, including music from Chicago’s Reid Karris, Austrian duo Afghanistan Mon Amour and Idaho composer Robert Eggplant.
Then there is the work of Glenn Weyant. The central Vermont composer has released some of the more interesting and, at times, tongue-in-cheek experimental records in recent memory. From his 2021 lawn mower symphony MOWED MUSIC to a record in which the self-described “sound sculptor” banged mallets against the United States/Mexico border in Nogales, Ariz., Weyant’s work is equal parts whimsy and indefatigable curiosity.
I still recall my confusion and delight when I saw Weyant perform some of his compositions two summers ago at the Museum of Everyday Life in Glover. Seated in the middle of a verdant field with a cello between his legs, Weyant played a soft drone while his children circled him with mowers, intermittently yelling out, “COMMERCE!” His last performance at Community of Sound featured an amplified log. I mean … c’mon.
For all the nuance and subtlety that experimental music can have, you want it to weird you the fuck out. You should hear one of these projects and become vexed, bemused, confused, maybe even slightly annoyed. Why annoyed? Because you don’t understand the music, and I’m telling you, that is a good thing.
This isn’t a call to abandon pop music. I’m not saying anyone should build a bass guitar from bear sinew and boogers just to make a two-track EP of ambient bass tones called Bearly Pickin’. (But if you do, I’ll definitely review it.) What I am trying to do is convince everybody to accept a little more weird into your music listening habits. And who does weird better than Vermonters?
Burlington-based singer-songwriter Toni Catlin is back with a new single and video called “How Can the Rain Still Fall.” Catlin is a Vermont native who spent 13 years in Nashville, Tenn., working with some of the best country music session players in the city. Her latest song is one of lingering grief.
“I wrote and recorded this song after losing both of my parents in the course of a year,” Catlin wrote on her website. “It is both heartbreaking and profound to be a witness to the last breaths of someone you love.”
Catlin collected video and film footage of her parents, which director Shem Roose intercut with shots of the singer on her family farm. The result is equal parts idyllic and bittersweet, as Catlin wonders what she’ll do with “all this empty space” and “sorrow so deep words can’t define.” Watch and listen to the track at tonicatlin.com.
Brattleboro’s Eloise & Co. have released two new music videos showcasing the natural beauty of the Green Mountain State. The Celtic folk trio of Becky Tracy, Rachel Bell and Bethany Waickman dropped “We’re Not Broken” and “Caps in the Air/Right Up the Street,” with both videos shot in some notable locations.
With funding from the Vermont Arts Council, the band filmed “We’re Not Broken” at the Moon Bridge at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney and “Caps in the Air/Right Up the Street” at the historic Rockingham Meeting House.
“One of my favorite parts of the project was having an excuse to deepen our connections with these cool and unique places,” Bell wrote in an email. “I marvel continuously that there are such gems to explore right here at home.”
Find both videos on YouTube.
Ryan Ober, known in the scene for hard-rocking antics with his band Ryan Ober and the Romans and as a wig-wearing guitar shredder with Led LO/CO, has officially entered the rap game. Ober, who works for electric aerospace company Beta Technologies by day, released a track that is equal parts lighthearted funk-rap and workplace PSA. Titled “If You Don’t Put My Tools Back,” the song finds Ober lamenting the state of his work area.
“Now, to the party that took my two-hole punch,” Ober raps. “We’re gonna need it after lunch.”
Check out his flow in the video on Beta Technologies’ YouTube channel. And, if you watch it at the office, be a considerate coworker and wear headphones, OK?