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Short Takes on Recent Releases

Pit Er Pat Improvises, Xiu Xiu Composes, New Yorkers collaborate like rabbits.

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Pit Er Pat | Pyramids (Thrill Jockey)

Xiu Xiu | The Air Force (5 Rue Christine)

Various Artists | Amplified: New Music Meets Rock, 1981-1986 (Orange Mountain)

Pit Er Pat | Pyramids

The four-year-old local trio Pit Er Pat creates elegantly unsettling songs that bring to mind the theatrical, intuitive art-pop of Quix*o*tic and the brittle but ethereal keyboard-driven soundscapes of Broadcast. On this year's limited-edition 3D Message EP the band added a few new elements to the mix, augmenting the dark, simple, live-in-the-studio sound of 2005's full-length debut, Shakey, with gleaming vocal harmonies and the occasional layer of hectic electronica. Pit Er Pat's second full-length, Pyramids, comes out this week--they play a release party at the Empty Bottle on Friday--and it continues this trend of experimentation.

Singer-keyboardist Fay Davis-Jeffers, bassist Rob Doran, and drummer Butchy Fuego recorded and mixed Pyramids in 11 days with John McEntire at Soma.

This isn't a startlingly short amount of time--Shakey took only six--but what's unusual about the sessions is that they arrived at a good half of the material on the album by improvising in the studio. Though they'd never relied so heavily on this approach before, the songs hardly feel slapped together--they're intricate and unpredictable, but with an organic flow that smooths out the corners. "Personally, I love working this way because of the immediacy it provides," says Fuego. "Having a musical idea be instantly documented gives an energy to a recording that is much harder to reach after rehearsing it for months."

The band has suggested that the recurrence of pyramid imagery in their lives--in the art they make, in their "personal encounters," even in their three-piece lineup--inspired the album. But dreams seem to play an equally important role. The opening track, "Brain Monster," is an off-kilter lullaby with a sparse keyboard melody that sounds like an amplified music box, and Davis-Jeffers's crystalline, casually elegiac vocals call up the ambiguous underworld of the unconscious: "So scared to go to sleep, afraid of what I might dream," she murmurs, as electronic glitches flitter in the background. Then a shimmering crash of cymbals introduces "Seasick (Hang Ten)," the highlight of the album, and right away the mood shifts. Doran strums acoustic guitar and takes the lead vocal, singing in a crackled tone about sunset-colored silks and shifting sea storms.

From there the record opens up in all kinds of directions, making room for atmospheric samples of rain forests and sirens in unusual arrangements that depart from verse-chorus structure or use dizzying amounts of space. Two things hold it all together, despite the constant shifts in color and direction: Fuego's eccentric and imaginative drumming, which sometimes seems to communicate as vividly as Davis-Jeffers's lyrics, and the thread of fragile intimacy that runs through every song. Pyramids was recorded last winter, while the city slipped beneath a sheet of sleet, and like a January landscape it conceals its secrets, giving them up only with time. --Mia Lily Clarke

Xiu Xiu | The Air Force

The first few bars of "Buzz Saw," the lead track on Xiu Xiu's new The Air Force, are all languorous, classical-sounding piano and breathy, trembling vocals from bandleader Jamie Stewart. But within seconds Stewart's dandy-on-a-settee vibe is interrupted by a martial snare drum counting off quarter notes and a jagged analog synth that zaps in from out of nowhere. It's an unsettling, even weirdly menacing gesture, in part because it's so perfectly engineered--he's not trying to freak you out by acting insane, but instead by demonstrating a deeply disturbing level of control. Stewart--who with his cousin Caralee McElroy makes up the core of this amorphous group's current incarnation--is one of the only pop songwriters I can think of who deserves to be called a composer. Though his material can give the superficial impression that all he's done is shred chunks of modern classical, indie rock, avant-noise, and electro-pop and then reassemble them into aggressive, starkly beautiful collages, he weaves a precise internal order into the music--the haphazard turns and clattering racket never tear the songs apartat the seams.

Stewart's got a reputation as a royal bummer, and combined with his arch, ironic sense of humor and homoerotic lyrics it gets him a lot of Morrissey comparisons. But while Morrissey writes in the idioms of movie romance--aching and longing, et cetera--Stewart frames everything in the harsh and unflattering light of amateur porn. About the most romantic line on The Air Force is, "Your acne is like a pearl / Mine I swear is a brimstone." His delivery is quavery and intimate, and the sentiment itself is startlingly tender in context, but the whole thing's undercut by self-loathing--these aren't songs you'd ever put on a mix CD for someone you were trying to get with. In fact The Air Force isn't mix-CD material just in general. It's best appreciated as a whole, preferably with headphones on--what unfolds as you listen is a breathtakingly intricate map of a brilliant but unwell mind. --Miles Raymer

Various Artists | Amplified: New Music Meets Rock, 1981-1986

These days there's nothing remarkable about musicians from different worlds sharing a band or a bill. There have always been plenty of folks with big ears, whose interests extend beyond a single specialty--they're certainly common enough in Chicago, where someone like bassist Josh Abrams might play straight-ahead jazz one night, pop with Sam Prekop the next, and Moroccan guimbri with Town and Country the third. But there may have been no more fertile time and place or this sort of musical cross-pollination than downtown New York in the late 70s and early 80s.

Amplified: New Music Meets Rock, 1981-1986 is the third CD in a series drawn from the live-tape archives of the Kitchen, the venerable New York nonprofit performance space founded by experimental filmmakers Woody and Steina Vasulka in 1971. Composer and guitarist Rhys Chatham--represented on the CD by an ear-drilling version of his 1977 minimalist classic Guitar Trio--originally booked the music there, and the space has long presented vanguard art in all media. Though the recordings on Amplified are almost all lo-fi, they communicate a simultaneous feeling of excited exploration and frustrated desperation (for musicians without easy-to-read genre tags, gigs were hard to come by).

Tracks from Sonic Youth and Swans capture the bands very early in their careers (some would say at their peaks), when they combined punishing volume and crude technique with a furious desire to smash the conventions of rock music. Punk may have nerved them up, but the ideas they were trying to get across owed at least as much to the world of conceptual art: Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo has said that a 1979 performance of Chatham's Guitar Trio crystallized the idea for the band's sound that he'd had in his head. Both Ranaldo and Thurston Moore played with serious composers like Chatham and Glenn Branca, and they were hardly the only ones crossing such a line. The version of Guitar Trio on Amplified features Nina Canal of Ut, an important post-no-wave band. Swans drummer Jonathan Kane became a regular collaborator of Chatham's. Jazz players like drummer Bobby Previte and saxist Philip Johnston play on Elliott Sharp's "Crowds and Power," a convulsive large-ensemble art-rock piece, and Previte was a full-fledged member of Ism, the band at the core of the ensemble. Cellist Arthur Russell, who bridged disco and classical music, appears as part of a short-lived group called Bill's Friends, playing skeletal, dissonant new wave. (He also contributes two lovely solo pieces from 1986; the disc's only studio tracks, they date from four years after the latest of its live recordings.)

Look into the discography of any one of the principal players on Amplified and the odds are good you'll turn up a few of the others--throughout the scene documented on the disc there was an inspiring level of flexibility and give-and-take. Hindsight makes it even clearer how rare that was: Philip Johnston, for instance, sticks pretty much to straight jazz these days, and trombonist Jim Staley, who also played in Sharp's group, favors nonidiomatic free improv. They haven't exactly grown hidebound, but neither has preserved the freewheeling spirit of cross-genre collaboration that was the norm at the Kitchen.

Likewise the excerpt from "His Master's Voice" by early experimental turntablist Christian Marclay seems not just groundbreaking but prophetic now that its aesthetic has since been integrated into mainstream forms. A profusion of blink-quick samples (contemporary classical, jazz, spoken word, film sound tracks, street preaching) strung together using prepared vinyl and modified turntables, it has the sort of stuttering, herky-jerky flow that became commonplace with the advent of cheap digital editing. Amplified doesn't pretend to offer a definitive account of its time and place, but it does demonstrate many of the things that made that time and place so special. --Peter Margasak

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