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July 23rd, 2014 WW Staff | Featured Stories
 

Best of Portland 2014: Best Listens

5listens_scrollerMALCOLM NOBLE - IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

BEST ORIGINAL PORTLAND RAPPER

Malcolm Noble is big on firsts. He’ll tell you, without prompting, the name of the first basketball player ever to shatter a backboard (Chuck Connors) and where the Fender Stratocaster made its live debut (Jantzen Beach). His favorite trivia question is even more obscure: Who is Portland’s first rapper?

Answer: Malcolm Noble.

At least, he’s pretty sure that’s true. In 1979, Noble and his band, Shock, recorded “Let’s Get Crackin’,” a boogie-funk jam featuring Noble speaking in simple rhymes (“This jam is not only nutritious/It can be, to the groovers, delicious”) over fat-backed synths. It’s about as primeval a form of rap as one can dig up. Still, according to Noble, no one else in Portland at the time had attempted anything similar.

“I had a claim I used to always say: ‘Yeah, you’re doing it now, but I was doing it when it wasn’t cool,’” says the 58-year-old musician from his apartment in Northeast Portland. “People were acting like I was talking to myself or something.”

Noble has spent his life entrenched in Portland’s R&B scene. He was introduced to hip-hop via an East Coast acquaintance of his cousin. When it came time for Shock to go into the studio, he decided to experiment with rap cadence. “Let’s Get Crackin’,” which appeared on the group’s 1980 album, Electrophonic Funk, became a minor hit, leading to tours supporting Smokey Robinson, Tower of Power and Tina Turner.  

Somewhere along the line, though, Noble’s pioneer status got, in his words, “lost in the sauce.” In the ’90s, he tried reasserting his place in Pacific Northwest history, dubbing himself MC Ol’ Skool and producing tracks for younger MCs. In 2007, Shock was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, and his covers act, Cool Breeze, plays regularly at the Spare Room. And yet Noble isn’t even sure Terrance “Cool Nutz” Scott, the so-called “ambassador” of Portland hip-hop and family friend from way back, would acknowledge his accomplishments.

“I’m just bewildered and disappointed that no one would ever actually do their research and find out who’s the guy who actually started this,” he says. “Because if they did, I have a feeling they’d at least have a stop at my door.” MATTHEW SINGER.


BEST ROCK-’N’-ROLL ANIMAL (CRYPTOZOOLOGICAL DIVISION)

“We need a yeti.” For Black Prairie’s John Moen, hearing those words from bandmate Chris Funk registered as a challenge. In the run-up to its new album, the normally placid Portland folk act had begun exploring its nascent classic-rock influences, to the point of booking a gig at LaurelThirst under its louder, heavier alias, White Tundra. It had the riffs and the volume. All the band needed to complete its transformation into a true Monster of Rock was, well, a monster. Moen, an aspiring special-effects artist in his younger days, accepted Funk’s (mostly sarcastic) edict, constructing an 8-foot albino Sasquatch out of aluminum tubing, insulating foam and fake fur. “Everyone wanted to name it ‘Eddie the Yeti,’” after Iron Maiden’s demonic mascot, Moen says. Instead, he christened her “Betty”—a reference to her shifty red “Yeti Davis eyes,” implanted from a Halloween decoration. The beast made its live debut at LaurelThirst, looming over the band as it bashed out Sabbath covers. She then followed Black Prairie into the studio, serving as a muse for the group’s most amplified album yet, this year’s Fortune. Alas, Betty was destined to be the Pete Best of homemade mythological creatures: She’s currently sitting, headless and retired, in Moen’s garage. He is hopeful for a reunion sometime in the future. Others, though, would prefer the hairy diva stay mothballed. “Good riddance,” Funk says. “Frankly, her bad vibes onstage really ruined it for me.” MATTHEW SINGER.


BEST LASER-TAGGED SCORE

Seventy-some years after Woody Guthrie recorded “Grand Coulee Dam” at a Portland studio, the city has again helped craft an ode to America’s largest hydroelectric facility. “Woody was trying to sell the idea of these giant public work projects,” said Mark Orton, a Portland composer best known for scoring 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominee Nebraska. “We’re selling the history of the area through lasers.”

You can hear Orton’s score every evening between Memorial and Labor days at the Grand Coulee Dam (grandcouleedam.com), 85 miles west of Spokane. For the past quarter-century, a laser light show has been projected on the face of the dam to accompany an educational film about the Columbia River. As the singular attraction of a sparsely populated region, the half-hour program long brought dependable audiences from nearby campgrounds. But the images (2-D geometric squiggles) and soundtrack (Vangelis, Neil Diamond) had grown stale over the decades.

The feds tapped Eugene’s LumaLaser, whose specialty illuminations have previously brightened screenings of Disney’s Tron: Legacy and the Hollywood Bowl, to design the new program “One River, Many Voices.” Portland documentarian Sue Arbuthnot waded through a gauntlet of competing interests to arrange a mutually agreeable voice-over, and her former collaborator Orton put aside cinematic duties—films he’s slated to score include the Kevin Kline-Kristin Scott Thomas comedy My Old Lady and the animated Laika feature The Boxtrolls—to compose background music for the biggest possible stage. The show debuted May 24.

Beyond the 1,000-seat concrete bleachers permanently facing the Grand Coulee’s center, organizers placed a succession of discreetly camouflaged audio components throughout the area to ensure that the soundtrack would extend as far as the spectacle could be glimpsed. “Anywhere you can see this thing, there’s going to be a speaker nearby,” Orton said.  “You pull over to the side of the road and, behind an electrical pole, they’ll have hung this huge speaker. Sometimes, they’re tiny little ones up in the corner of a building or on a tree.  Some of them are hidden, but not in an insidious way. It’s not like a Big Brother vibe.”

All told, the production cost the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation just under $2 million. “You’re building something for the ages,” Orton continued, “not for just two minutes of the next news cycle. Projecting over a screen that’s one mile wide is a technical feat. It’s one thing for a laser to sweep across the planetarium ceiling during ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’  To have the spillway of a gigantic dam covered in this multitextured light…that’s a wow.” JAY HORTON.


BEST CRASHING ELEVATOR MUSIC 

If you listen to a lot of KBOO, you’re used to being challenged by the sounds and ideas broadcast from the anarchic 45-year-old community radio station off East Burnside Street. Occasionally, things get a little nutty. Rarely, though, are they so unpleasant as to tempt a click up one frequency to basic-ass OPB.

But two hours of blood-curdling screams, machine-gun bursts and speaker-rattling explosions on KBOO’s oddest program, A Different Nature, almost got me. Normally, you tune in to the Monday night “genre-defying avant-garde” music program to hear a little Sun Ra or Zbigniew Karkowski and maybe a few less-commercial B-sides from Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Last July, though, it sounded as if Rambo were executing every last man, woman and child in that village from Apocalypse Now.

I called to complain, and was gently chastened.

“We wanted to do a show of people making love,” said the host, “but the FCC says you can’t broadcast the sound of people having sex, though apparently violence is fine so long as there are no curse words, so we said, ‘OK, we’ll play two hours of fighting—as sort of a commentary on the FCC’s rules.’ Sorry you’re not enjoying it, we’ll be doing something different next week.”

I shut up, hung up, and suffered another 10 minutes of explosions and screams. MARTIN CIZMAR.


BEST PLACE TO HEAR (AND SEE AND FEEL) MUSIC

You could spend about 15 minutes at CymaSpace (4634B NE Garfield Ave., cymaspace.org) and still think you’re at any old house show. It is, after all, a slightly cramped cellar just off Alberta Street, with a couple of cozy couches, a white shag carpet in lieu of a stage, and crowds that on packed nights spill out into the backyard vegetable garden. If there weren’t loud rock playing and 100 people milling around, the place would basically look like a well-soundproofed version of your own basement. 

SPACE OUT: Stephanie Simek with a homemade vinyl looping device at CymaSpace.
Image courtesy CymaSpace

But then you sit down on the couch and feel the seat hum with each kick of the bass drum, or you notice the LED lights lining the ceiling turn purple every time the singer hits a high note. And wait, is that psychedelic projection on the wall actually shifting shape with that jagged guitar riff? The answer is yes: In fact, it’s all connected.

“If I’m no longer aware of what the visuals are telling me, we’re going in the wrong direction,” founder Myles de Bastion says. He was born profoundly deaf—and can now hear only a narrow range of midfrequency sounds—but de Bastion is an accomplished guitarist, and he dreamed up CymaSpace to bring the music he loves to his hearing-impaired friends. 

Just over a year ago, de Bastion taught himself electronics from scratch and built an amp-sized cube that would light up when he played. Then he built a light rig that matched colors on the light spectrum to sonic frequencies—violet for highs, red for lows. After that came vibrating furniture and a light-up drum set. Now, CymaSpace is a truly multisensory experience: At a recent show, there was even juice served, color-coded to match the light spectrum of specific songs. The space claims to be the only venue of its kind in the world.

While it began as a bridge between the hearing and deaf communities, CymaSpace aims to be accessible to anyone. Shows are all-ages, and the space has hosted everything from hip-hop to punk, from poetry readings to tech-geek hack sessions. “This is a community, and there’s room for everybody,” co-founder and poet Monica Storss says. “All the arts, all the senses.” TREE PALMEDO.


BEST PUBLIC IPOD MIX

Last month, I was eating lunch at my local McMenamins, because this is what you do in your 30s—you eat lunch at McMenamins and come to see it as an indispensable part of your week. And not for the first time, I noticed the music: an unerringly lilting and comforting mixtape of Americana, Ryan Adams followed by Emmylou Harris followed by the Old 97s. But this time I asked who picked the songs. Turns out it’s a kind of in-house radio station that plays at all 66 of the rehabbed McMenamins pubs, selected by Dan McMenamin, son of co-founder Mike. “Sometimes,” my server informed me, “we put in something from after 1983.” Portland’s sole remaining Adult Album Alternative station airs only inside a chain of bars—dad rock chosen by the son of the company’s father. AARON MESH.

Best of Portland 2014 

Best Listens | Best Buys | Best Moves | Best Animals | Best Civic Life 

Best People | Best Reads | Best Looks | Best Bests 


 
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