Weekly (p)reviews: Maximalist emotional outpourings

Jeffrey Silverstein gets a drummer; Negativland brings Sue-C to Holocene; Mdou Moctar apologizes for being SO LOUD

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Jeffrey Silverstein under the St. Johns Bridge. Photo by Shade Standard.
Jeffrey Silverstein under the St. Johns Bridge. Photo by Shade Standard.

Jeffrey Silverstein is on the cusp of his next evolutionary stage as an artist. He’s gone through a number of them already. Prior to moving to the Northwest, Silverstein was a member of Secret Mountains, an indie rock outfit out of Baltimore that enjoyed lapel-grabbing volume and maximalist emotional outpourings. Relocating to Brooklyn, he joined up with buddy Justin Wilcox in Nassau to create creaking, slow shuffling folk bathed in an ambient glow.

Since relocating to Portland, Silverstein has sought even more unusual musical sensations. The three solo recordings he has released to date—2019’s How On Earth, 2020’s You Become The Mountain, and this year’s Torii Gates—feel like extensions of a euphoric state. In the notes for his latest work, Silverstein mentions that, in addition to music, it’s been his work as an educator for children with special needs and his time spent running and meditating that have helped him make sense of himself and the world. But each of these practices also holds the promise of moments of bliss, whether that’s making a connection with a kid or the buzz of a runner’s high.

Silverstein’s music is the continued afterglow. Held steady by the unflagging rhythms of a drum machine, he draws vaporous melodies out from his guitar and sings with a loopy grin. To his last two releases, he’s added even more textures with the addition of pedal steel diviner Barry Walker, Jr. and bassist Alex Chapman. They bring the foundational low end and pealing highs to cushion Silverstein’s gooey midrange. 

The step forward that Silverstein is ready to make involves bringing a live drummer into the fold. Over the past few weeks, he and his already established sidemen have been building a new collection of recordings with Dana Buoy, the musician best known as a member of psych rock group Akron/Family. Even in these rough early days, Silverstein says he can feel how his songwriting and playing have begun to change. 

“I was nervous but excited knowing that once a drummer and a bass player start creating an energy with me that the song could feel different or go somewhere else,” Silverstein says. “I wanted that. You can get very attached to your demos, and it’s hard to start hearing things differently. But I invited these people for a reason—to see what they offer.”

Having Buoy involved is especially meaningful to Silverstein, as Akron/Family was a touchstone artist for him for the better part of his adult life. Too, he kept crossing paths with the members of the group when he lived in Brooklyn, and hoped, once he was settled in Portland, to connect with Buoy at some point. But even after playing with Buoy and getting to know him more, Silverstein still feels awestruck. 

“I’ve told him that,” Silverstein says. “It’s really cool that we’ve become friends, but it’s a big deal for it to be him specifically because of how important Akron/Family has been to me over the years.”

The broader view of this change in Silverstein’s songwriting is that, as he was writing and recording the material that would make up Torii Gates, he heard the music getting dirtier and heftier. Check out the closing minutes of “Caught Behind The Hours,” which spirals into a spirited duel between Silverstein and Walker. It’s not a complete sonic shift into something like doom metal, but the weight is enough that he needed the feel of a real-life drummer to help explore this new development.

“The drum machine locks you into a certain place sometimes,” Silverstein says. “If I wanted to be able to incorporate a little bit of that heaviness and bring some new energy in, I had to give myself permission to step out of that. I hope that’s what’s going on.” 

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What Silverstein is not doing is putting any pressure on himself to finish the sessions for his next album. This is another lesson he’s pulled from both his job and his life outside the school. You put too much pressure on yourself or those around you to achieve a particular goal, and more often than not you’re going to face resistance. With some guidance from Ryan Oxford, the producer of his past two EPs and his new material, Silverstein has learned to get out of his own way and let the music happen at its own pace.

“I don’t feel in a hurry for this one to be done,” he says. “Sometimes I’m legitimately up against time constraints just because I’m not someone that can book a week in a studio. Sometimes there’s a healthy pressure to create. I get ahead of myself because I want to start hearing it 10 steps ahead. But I just need to focus on what’s happening right now.” 

Jeffrey Silverstein Band performs at Alberta Street Pub (1036 NE Alberta St, Portland OR) on Friday, October 1 at 9 pm, w/ Rose City Band. 

Negativland @ Holocene, September 20, 2021

The decision by Bay Area sonic pranksters Negativland to include visual artist Sue-C in their live shows was brilliant. Outside of the care and attention that the group has brought to their many albums, the group’s concerts and their weekly KPFA radio show Over The Edge have the feel of playful chaos, as if core members Mark Hosler, John Leidecker, and David “The Weatherman” Willis are creating a wholly improvised collage of electronic blurts and pointed samples based on a particular theme.

Negativland with Sue-C at Holocene. Photo by Robert Ham.
Negativland with Sue-C at Holocene. Photo by Robert Ham.

Sue-C’s array of paper cutouts, found objects, and video clips revealed just how much forethought went into the set that Negativland put together for their current tour. Throughout, when Leidecker would trigger a certain spoken word sample, Sue would simultaneously project a corresponding phrase or a word. As the bulk of these edited bits of dialogue revolved around memory and thought, Sue would manipulate a small toy brain.

That we could see her hands at work only added to this feeling of demystification that ran through the whole set. It was easy to see the gear that Leidecker and Hosler were using, including a batch of connected iPads; the Weatherman’s homemade electronic instrument, The Booper; a toy megaphone; a couple of smartphones; and a synth. You, too, could create your own long suite of fractured beats, warped melodies, and samples of scientific lectures that combine to question our relationship with technology and nature, and how one affects the other.

Negativland with Sue-C at Holocene. Photo by Robert Ham.
Negativland with Sue-C at Holocene. Photo by Robert Ham.

The one piece you’ll need to complete the puzzle is a sense of humor. Negativland remains a playful bunch, poking fun at the hypocrisies and mental gymnastics that we all engage in to survive the modern world. And they’re self-aware enough to point those jabs at themselves along the way. 

At least one moment in the set did feel like the group was flying relatively blind. As they took the stage for the encore, Leidecker announced that he had a phone call to make and FaceTimed with Willis (at age 67, he is wisely staying at home to avoid potential COVID infection). The other two musicians then went into an extended squelchy jam to which Willis reacted with his signature adenoidal delight.

Negativland with Sue-C at Holocene. Photo by Robert Ham.
Negativland with Sue-C at Holocene. Photo by Robert Ham.

Mdou Moctar @ Mississippi Studios, September 26, 2021

Mdou Moctar began the evening with an apology, gently speaking into the microphone, “Sorry it’s so loud,” before he had played even a single note. 

It was a curious mea culpa from an artist whose profile has risen dramatically over the past decade because of the power and volume of his fiery desert blues. As well, Moctar and his band had sold out two nights at Mississippi Studios. This was an audience hungry for an intense, groove heavy attack. But, just in case anyone didn’t know what they were in for, a small redress.

Moctar’s timid acknowledgement befit his stage presence. Though he towered over the rest of his group and drew the eye with his bright pink outfit, he was an awkward center of attention. He gamely planted one of his sandaled feet on the stage monitor, and, at one point, stood stiffly at the lip of the stage as he tore into another guitar solo. It wasn’t until the encore that he exhorted the audience to give him some energy by clapping along with the furious beat that Souleymane Ibrahim was pounding out on the drums.

Mdou Moctar at Mississippi Studios. Photo by Robert Ham.
Mdou Moctar at Mississippi Studios. Photo by Robert Ham.

The ardor of the crowd was already there, myself included. For an hour, they had been stirred into a lowkey state of ecstasy by this quartet. The notes I took over the course of their set are filled with hyperbolic half-sentences. About the band’s tendency to gradually swell in volume before exploding into the main song: “slow burn—smoke before BLAZE.” About Ibrahim’s rapid-fire fills and steady kick drum pulse: “Drummer is a FORCE.” Elsewhere, all I could write were all-caps sentiments like “HIGHER,” “ECSTASY,” “FLASHY,” and “ACID ROCK.”

All those superlatives apply. This quartet is a wonder—so locked into each other’s wavelength that they responded to the occasionally wavering tempo set down by Ibrahim within a nanosecond. Yes, they were “so loud,” but it’s the volume that helped the crowd get deeper into the trance-inducing spirit of these repetitive psychedelic tunes. And after 18+ months without it, that sonic turbulence felt exhilarating and cleansing. No apology necessary.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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