Asphalt Orchestra: Asphalt Orchestra

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Asphalt Orchestra is a giddy band camp fantasy brought to life: What if the section leaders formed a marching band that was actually cool?

Asphalt Orchestra

Asphalt Orchestra

Label: Cantaloupe
US Release Date: 2011-02-22
UK Release Date: 2011-02-28
Label Website
Artist Website

Asphalt Orchestra is a giddy band camp fantasy brought to life: What if the section leaders formed a marching band that was actually cool? They’d play only the music they listened to in the parking lot between rehearsals. Stuff like Frank Zappa, Bjork, and Swedish metal band Meshuggah would be in; showtunes and “The Horse” would disappear completely. Well, thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the Bang On a Can new music organization, the dream is realized. And the result is... a little geeky.

Don’t get me wrong, the Asphalt Orchestra can blow. Listening to the insane repeated notes of their take on Meshuggah’s “Electric Red”, my band director wife was impressed: “They really know how to use their tongues”. They also know how to count. Zappa and Meshuggah belong to an elite musical club: they’re widely known for writing songs with shifting meters, or with different instruments playing in different meters at the same time. “Electric Red” has passages in 23/16 or something. If you’re tempted to figure it out, you’re probably one of those maniacs who likes to complete Sudokus in your head.

The Asphalts play all this stuff with great precision and clarity. With the right arrangements, all that math becomes an afterthought. In Charles Mingus’s hard-to-count “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers”, as in “Electric Red”, the multi-layered beats lay an unsettling foundation for beautiful long tones. The brass and woodwind chords smear into one another until, unmoored from familiar rhythms, they create musical structures that feel genuinely unique.

For all their obvious skill, the band has trouble giving their covers a personal stamp. (Aside from the sousaphone parts, of course.) Bjork’s original “Hyper-Ballad” is an amorphous mush of a song that evolves into a killer emotional hook. For his arrangement, trombonist Alan Ferber has kept the hook, which sounds great played by brass. He's also completely altered the verses; they now boast more stuff going on, but they still meander. And without Bjork’s out-sized personality to help us wade through, they don’t meander in an especially compelling way. You may find yourself twiddling your thumbs until the band gets to the good parts.

Tenor saxophonist Peter Hess’s arrangement of Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” is more faithful. The super-tight band ably negotiates Zappa’s dense tangle of notes. All the same, I wish they had a soloist with as much personality, or even as much willingness to sound BAD, as Zappa’s guitar or Ricky Lancelotti’s voice. Instead they sound squeaky clean, which isn’t what you want for a song as idiotic as “Zomby Woof”.

The band’s commissioned originals make Asphalt Orchestra worth hearing. Balkan musical whirlwind Goran Bregovic contributes the drunken polka “Champagne”. Even better is “Carlton”, by Heidi Rodewald and Stew, which weds a sunshine melody to a funky stepping groove. And the album closes with the highbrow “Pulse March”, by Tyondai Braxton of the band Battles. The march puts a single four-note motif through its paces, tossing it from one instrument and pitch to another while mayhem swirls around it. It’s the piece that best shows off what the Asphalts are capable of doing. "Pulse March" would sound great in a concert hall or stomping through New York City traffic, and it’d surely land ‘em first place at Regionals.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.