Levin Torn White – Tony Levin, David Torn, Alan White
CD produced by Scott Schorr and Tony Levin for Lazy Bones Recordings. All songs by Levin, Torn, White, except “Sleeping Horse,” by Levin and Torn.
First, the facts:
- It debuted in the Top 50 on Amazon.com
- Promo video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMHGGCixlss&feature=feedlik
- Audio: http://soundcloud.com/lazy-bones-recordings/levin-torn-white-audio-snippet
- Official website: http://www.levintornwhite.com
I’m giving you some background to put this collaboration in perspective:
Tony Levin, bass and Chapman Stick: He most recently played on Adrian Belew’s tour, and has played with, among others, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Todd Rundgren, and everyone from Yes except Chris Squire, which makes sense. His discography would take up pages, so just some big names: David Bowie, Cher (I swear), Alice Cooper, Natalie Cole, Dire Straits, Bryan Ferry, Peter Frampton, Etta James, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, Lou Reed, Buddy Rich (how cool is that?), Carly Simon, Tom Waits. Basically, Levin can play any kind of music. Listen to Waters of Eden, his gorgeous, otherworldly 2000 CD, for a drastic contrast to the Levin Torn White CD.
David Torn, guitars and “textural events”:
If you’re a guitar player or enthusiast, and don’t know David Torn, shame on you. His out-of-this-world discography includes a dozen or so LPs (some in collaboration), and he’s played on recordings by David Bowie, Sting, Laurie Anderson, kd Lang, Bill Bruford, and other people. He doesn’t seem to be the touring type. Out of Cell Labs, his own studio, “Splattercell” (his handle), he’s also made movie soundtracks. And he co-wrote and produced several tracks on Jeff Beck’s Grammy-winning Jeff. Did you hear me? Jeff Beck.
Alan White, drums and percussion:
Most recently, Alan did a European tour with Yes which, auspiciously, began on Nov. 3 (Happy Birthday to me.) Okay, discography time: Joe Cocker, Ginger Baker, John Lennon, George Harrison, and at least 16 Yes albums.
Scott Schorr co-engineered, played piano and keyboards, and arranged all songs but “Brain Tattoo” (Levin and Torn).
So look, you sonic boom buffs: there’s no way to review Levin Torn White’s self-titled new release in the usual rock crit fashion, because there’s nothing usual about this CD. I defy even Scott “Scary as Hell” Walker to put lyrics to these tracks (in-joke for Scott S.).
This my impressionistic take. Warning: you will not be able to multi-task while playing this CD. Trust me. Your ears will be very busy going, “OMFG!” Don’t try to figure out the track titles. I had to ask Tony Levin WTF.
“In recordings like these, actually in most of the group recordings I do, titles are always changing. Unless there’s some lyric content, the title can just represent how you feel about the music─ and as the piece progresses, sometimes you change the title a few times. Leads to a lot of confusion among the band, as you’d guess, but fortunately the record buying public only sees the final title. These titles came from all of us; mostly, I’d guess, to reflect how somebody felt about the particular piece.” That still doesn’t clear up the “Cheese It, the Corpse” mystery.
He also explained how the three got together. “Scott Schorr, our producer, was imagining a small group, with notable progressive players─ the way it came to be was with us.”
The trio recorded in four locations in the U.S. and New Zealand. Levin was in the studio with David while he did most of his tracking, but wasn’t in the same room with Alan at all, which is pretty unusual.
None of the music was structured. Tony talked about their creative process: “Alan started things off by playing his wildest ideas. Scott did some compiling, choosing which bits to use out of a lot of material. Then David and I used the same method: lots of playing along with wild ideas, then Scott would put in the hours to weed through it, using the takes he responded to best.” I asked if they’d rehearsed any of the material. I quote: “Nope.”
As for Levin’s instrumentation, “I played pretty much everything I have, and on some tracks there are multiple bass instruments ─ in fact, on most. I played a Music Man 5, fretless, NS electric upright, and Chapman Stick, with lots of effects on all.”
He summed up the CD this way: “I think one of the special things about it is that we’re not often given the chance to really stretch out and get as wild as the music can take us. I appreciate that Scott supported us on that wild ride, and I’m also grateful to the music fans who are kind of joining us on that trip by listening to the music.”
- No Warning Lights:
Cavernous cathedral sound, science fiction, Yes, Pink Floyd, evil bottom. I imagine all sorts of cosmic scenarios.
- Ultra Mullett:
Pitter patter, what is that time signature, Jeff Beck sound, who knew Alan White was such a rocker? These guys know how to create tension. Love how the guitar suddenly sings from outer space. Sounds like a lot more than 3 or 4 guys. They’re throwing so many ideas into the pot, I don’t know what to call it. Would be interesting to try to come up with lyrics for this excursion. Torn is getting every possible sound out of his guitar(s). This is some wild ride. I asked Tony what time signatures they used. I quote: “Oy.”
- White Noise:
No it’s not. Staccato percussion opening statement, answered by eerie guitar. This is probably a bad thing to say, but shades of early David Gilmour. There’s so much going on here, textural is the only word that fits. Love the drum sound. Amazing players feeding off one another, having a no-holds-barred conversation.
- The Hood Fell:
I love that I can hear shades of every decade of heavy music in here; the synthesis of everything that’s exciting about rock— but outside any rock structure— except maybe those early psychedelic fugues that bands like Pink Floyd took. Look out for that axe, Eugene. Interstellar Overdrive. Heavier than anything Yes did. Now I gotta go back and listen to King Crimson to hear the evolution of these sounds. Great music for a dance troupe to get their hands (and feet) on!
- Monkey Mind:
I happened to listen to the CD on a day when I was suffering big-time from Monkey Mind. (Should I move the furniture? Finish writing the novel? Return emails? Go swimming? Clean the friggin’ kitchen? Call somebody?) and this track pretty much captures the experience. You’d need a GPS to try to predict where it’s going. I’m sure if anyone walked in on me in this listening session they’d think I dropped too much acid. Love the kinda twittering little sound near the end. I mean as in birdie, not internet. Is it the “singing-bird feedback” Torn mentions on his website?
- Cheese It, the Corpse:
How the hell do these guys move their fingers so fast? Is the title a deliberate effort to cause listeners grief trying to figure out the deep meaning? Love how they twisted shades of a “Foxy Lady” riff and took it way out there. I don’t know how this material would fare in live performance, considering our visual-byte culture, but each player has enough crazy cells to pull it off, even without vocals or dancers. I don’t know how they all got into the same head to create this. The rideout has tantalizing, teeny, almost-below-audible sounds.
Probably my favorite track. Gorgeous current, Jeff Beck intro sound (sorry, David, but I need reference points to anchor my brain), like floating on another planet. Yeah, this is tripping music. Yikes!─ spooky moment: my windows all look out on the Hudson River; right now a barge is majestically making its way downriver, and I swear the water under the prow is moving in time with the music. And I am not tripping. This track actually is kind of calming. It’s beautiful.
- Pillowful of Dark:
Ominous, even without the title. But the guitars and Chapman Stick make it beautiful. Wait a minute! I hear a near-subliminal voice in the background. It might be Alan in the studio. And I really appreciate that little keyboard bit near the end.
- The Eggman Cometh:
This is the funky cut, if you can apply that word to a caffeinated sound collage. L, T, W have a knack for making you think, “Wait a minute, come back here and do more of that!” They specialize in staking out a groove, hooking you in, and then making a sudden left turn that leaves you trying to catch up.
- Sleeping Horse:
Most of the tracks start with a “Now I’m going to tell you a scary story” feel. I like the contrast of how they leave space between the sounds while maintaining continuity, and at other times jam-pack them so you can’t tell who’s doing what and whether it’s production magic or not. Torn and Levin can spin a note out until it’s a thin thread yet still holds everything together in a vast web. I can’t describe the effect except in visual terms. Think of the scene in Lord of the Rings when Frodo enters the mammoth spider’s cave and sees the gigantic, complicated web. The sounds near the end are definitely that horse neighing or snoring in its sleep. Very funny, guys.
- Prom Night of the Centipedes:
Okay, how can you not picture a Disneyesque critter dancing on 100 legs? I was coasting in the groove when oops, they’ve got something else to show you. L, T, W never let you get too comfortable before they dish out the next surprise. The music turns creepy, and I think of those horror movies where the stupid teenagers wander off into the dark because they hear a noise, and then you know what inevitably happens…but instead, we hear what sounds like someone talking on a radio in the distance.
I asked Tony whether it was the keyboard synthesizer or the Chapman Stick making the music turn creepy; apparently he was innocent: “’Creepy’ is usually Torn’s doing!”
- Crunch Time:
Once again, they don’t let you get too used to a phrase, like the little guitar figure Torn puts out early in the piece. Suddenly it’s swamped, swirled into a maelstrom. I’d have to call this music controlled chaos. Could they possibly recreate this accurately live? Maybe that’s the farthest thing from their minds. I’m damned if I can understand the creative process that went on in each guy’s head to come out with this music. Love the drum tornado wrapping it up.
- Brain Tattoo:
Yep, Torn’s guitar sounds definitely do that to your brain. Hey, wait a minute—I’m tapping my foot to this one! Love the funk of the rhythm section. I want the bass cranked up, though. Uh-oh, they just headed off on another highway. I’m thinking it would be hilarious to see people on the dance floor trying to deal with this music. You have to react to it in the moment, you can’t assume anything. And bing, bang, boom, it’s over.
- Lights Out:
Tentative, simple, building intro, branches out in unexpected directions. You really just have to go with the flow and not expect. A trace of traditional Asian music feel in the middle guitar section, then back out into no man’s/woman’s land. Wonder what’d happen if these guys had electrodes placed on their heads to record what was going on with their brain waves while they played. That’d be some printout!
Levin, Torn, White have no plans to tour together, but you never know what the future will bring. Right now they’re busy: Alan is on tour with Yes and Levin with Stick Men. “I hope to be doing a lot more live playing,” said Tony. “It’s what I love.”