Creating a mix CD is an adventure, even when you're simply stringing together Guy Lombardo tunes for your great-aunt Yelga in Lino Lakes. The number of possible songs is always daunting, and the range of possible narratives is always humbling. But when the blank disc whispers to you in the voice of Barry White, pleading Come fill me, baby, the dangers of track list selection become irrelevant: We hapless mortals have no choice but to spend every waking hour with an index finger glued to the pause and record buttons. Which is why when we decided to create a mix that reflects the spirit of this year's Destijl/Freedom From Festival of Music--a two-day psych, jazz, rock, drone, noise, and folk extravaganza at the Fine Line Music Café--we threw away our charts, asked the experts to stop calling, and plunged into the nearest psychic rabbit hole, hoping that, like the explorers in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, our instincts would lead us to the festival's core. With scars from the lava and wounds from the noise, this is what we retrieved from the depths.
1. Bridget St. John, "Fly High," from 2000's Top Gear and Singles 1969-1973(Self-Released) On this majestic piece of labor-intensive psychedelifolk, recorded in 1972, legendary troubadour Bridget St. John floats through the mists of Avalon, full orchestra billowing around her like a multicolored cape. Is she quoting Lewis Carroll or Robert Louis Stevenson when she sings "The world is so full of a number of things/I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings"? It hardly matters: Spend a minute or two in her garden of earthly delights, and you'll be blissfully indifferent to words. St. John's pellucid alto sometimes glides splendidly solo with only her guitar for support, but here, violins add a majestic touch, swirling around the harp and the angelic choir that exhort us to "fly high" on the song's chorus--as if we needed any prodding. Despite St. John's command, though, we really don't require chemical assistance for listening: The jazzy woodwind interlude alone is enough to induce mescaline-laced manna for the ears.
2. Angelblood, "America and Me," from 2000's Angelblood (Captain Trip Records) The spirit of real-life vampire Countess Elizabeth Bathory lives on in this deliciously lurching negative wave anthem. Angelblood's Rita Ackermann, Lizzie Bougatsos, and Jess Holzworth may be the wicked city slicker cousins to sirens like Miss Pussycat, but they haven't let their slickness filter through to the track's production, which could have been recorded in a rumpus room in the witchy wood. The guitar sounds like strings are popping off its neck left and right; the drums are trapped between a Captain Beefheart audition and a Shaggs jam session, and the way that these ladies moan, mewl, and caterwaul the line "America and me/America and the sea/This is where I'd like to be" suggests that they have a strong fondness for the USA. Why? Because the people who live there are nice, fat, and too slow to get away.
3. Arthur Doyle, "Noah Black Ark," from 2003's The Basement Tapes(Durtro) Violinist Dan Warburton and drummer Edward Perraud open this track like snake charmers at a cocktail lounge for cobras. But as soon as Doyle propels his fluid, throaty tenor sax into the proceedings, it's clear that the trio have the power to summon every celestial creature who frolics in hog heaven. Having been properly called, any winged porker would gladly hover like a cherub, listening to Doyle and company provide a glimpse of what John Coltrane might be doing today if his love affair with the universe hadn't been cut short. Like Coltrane's glorious later output, "Noah Black Ark" isn't so much free jazz as it is saxophonic glossolalia. Listen and be terrified or cleansed--or both.
4. No Neck Blues Band, "Intonomancy," from 2002's Intonomancy(Soundatone) This micro-epic improvisation hints that New York's No Neck Blues Band could play on the apex of Mount Everest and still sound like they were jamming in a cave. The track opens as slowly as a flower, with hand drumming straight from the Casbahs of Brooklyn underpinning a circuit-bent gizmo that seems to be establishing contact with R2D2's descendents. Deliberately meandering guitars lend a belladonna warp-and-weave to the ritual fabric, as the gizmo's glissandi reach boiling point. Then the maracas enter, just in time for the assemblage to disintegrate beneath its own weightlessness.
5. Tony Conrad (with Faust), "The Pyre of Angus was in Kathmandu," from 2002's Outside the Dream Syndicate: 30th Anniversary Edition(Table of the Elements) You can almost smell the smoke rising from Conrad's 1972 elegy for his former Theater of Eternal Music bandmate Angus MacLise--as if the sparks flying off his violin strings weren't enough! Conrad works a drone along the paths laid out by Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath and minimalist trailblazer La Monte Young, sawing away carefully at a few select notes until he generates a veritable tonal swarm. Then he simply lets his bowchild drift gently into the ether. One can't help suspect that if the piece were any longer, he might accidentally halve his violin.
5. Träd Gräs och Stenar, "Dibio," from 2002's Djunglens Lag(1/2 Special) It's hootenanny time, 21st-century Swede style! No need to worry about the language barrier though--the entire track by these psychedelic Scandinavians is delivered in lip-heavy freeform Muppetese. Despite its New Christy Minstrels flavor and acoustic guitar accompaniment, "Dibio" is primarily a launching pad for Träd Gräs och Stenar's inspired vocal harmonies: The translingual quintet (whose name means "Trees, Grass, and Stone") ooheoohoo and lalalolo like no one else in showbiz. At least that's what it sounds like to me--if this song turns out to be in an obscure Swedish dialect, somebody's going to be mighty embarrassed.
6. No Doctors, "The Quarry," from 2002's No Doctors(Freedom From) Someday, the mayor of Las Vegas will present these Chicago-based emperors of soul with the keys to his city, where they will then engage in a massive superjam session at the Luxor with Celine Dion, Wayne Newton, Blue Man Group, and everyone in Cirque du Soleil. No Doctors already have the fashion sense, the panache, and the jacked-up tempos an act needs to work the big rooms--now all they need is a break. Until one comes, they'll have to settle for playing rat-infested shitholes and shit-infested ratholes, with the occasional incursion into Fine Line-level showplaces. "The Quarry" begins bluesily with a snaky solo guitar, then explodes into full-on Pussy Galore tribute turf, right down to the Exiles on Main Street-style horn riff, which is executed on guitar. The trumpet player blows so frantically, you'd think he fills his spit valve with one breath.
7. Burning Star Core, "White Swords in a Black Castle," from 2003's White Swords in a Black Castle(Dronedisco) On this monumental rumbler, Death Beam mainstay and Cincinnati monster of drone C. Spencer Yeh steers his solo vehicle straight into the mouth of an underground volcano. The track is all lushly layered ringing harmonics for a minute or two, then the sucker erupts, instantly vaporizing any earwax in its path. But you can almost hear life forms swimming in the molten maelstrom--whirling anemones, metallic flying fish, and creatures that look like sentinels from The Matrix. We reckon those beautiful strings in the distance must be coming from Zion. Sorry Neo, but when we get replaced by machines, lullabies will sound like this.
8. Dead Machines, "Discontented Statics" from 2003's Discontented Statics(American Tapes) Calling all UFO buffs, ceremonial magicians, and weenie-wagging Tantric masters! Here's the working soundtrack you've been searching for. Judging by this cassette-length alien soundscape, Dead Machines are deploying maniacally rewired electronics in the service of establishing contact with civilizations in faraway galaxies. Tovah O'Rourke-Olson and Wolf Eyes' John Olson channel thickets of rhythmic whirrs and apoplectic chitters through ancient oscillators, coaxing burled crackles out of wormholes too small to be seen with the naked eye, and plucking subatomic disruptions from dimensions that have nothing in common with ours. Listen, and learn Venusian in your sleep.
9. Borbetomagus, "Untitled," from 1992's Live at Inroads (P.S.F.) Challenging jazz has been a certain type of hipster's lingua franca ever since Bird, Diz, and Mingus started flatting more fifths than they drank. But Borbetomagus don't play for the poseurs: They're not just jazz musicians, despite their origins in that realm. Using saxophones, guitar, and electronics, Jim Sauter, Don Dietrich, Donald Miller, and Brian Doherty whip up a veritable hurricane of bona fide insect-killing, houseplant-shriveling, lease-breaking N-O-I-S-E. This demolition-grade brawler, recorded in 1982, finds these aural assault artists earnestly engaged in a rough approximation of kamikaze power tools fighting really mean pterodactyls on meth, a cage match executed smack dab in the middle of Armageddon. And those are the quiet parts.
10. Devendra Banhart, "Michigan State," from 2002's Oh Me Oh My...The Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit(Young God) Sometimes, there's nothing more comforting than the simple sound of an acoustic guitar and a human voice--even when you suspect that the singer has pointed ears, hooves, and tiny horns. In fact, there may be nothing extra-human about this wandering gnome except for his fortuitously unearthly vocals. Imagine a cross between Tyrannosaurus Rex-era Marc Bolan and Billie Holiday in her prime, between Nick Drake's tenderness and Tiny Tim's stratospheric yen, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the enchanting mischief that finds its way out of Banhart's pipes. The outsider music prodigy celebrates everything from the earth and sea to his own toes on this surreal ode to the Wolverine State, but the song's crowning moment comes when he sings: "My friend has my favorite teeth/They bend backwards when she breathes/And it whistles." Sooner or later, everything in Banhart's universe whistles.