Starting off with the first Hidden Gems of the year, featuring a regular around the site, Jeff Tobias. The name should sound familiar if you’ve been listening to any number of RSTB faves like Sunwatchers, Modern Nature, or Bridid Dawson and the Mothers Network. Jeff’s got a solo album just out this month and it seemed the perfect time to thumb through his record shelf for a Gem that may have been hiding from the multitudes. Jeff dug back into one of the key inspirations for a lot of his modern work. Check out his dive into a minimal treasure.
“In 2010, all my bands broke up,” recalls Jeff. “I was living in Athens, Georgia and I knew that I was going to make music for the rest of my life, but I felt like I needed to reassess and possibly find a supplementary path forward. I had never completed a college degree, and for reasons that seem both reasonable and inexplicable in retrospect, I decided I ought to give that a try. Maybe majoring in journalism? Eventually? I enrolled at Athens Tech in an effort to rebuild a GPA that I’d thoroughly torpedoed during my first ‘attempt’ at higher education when I was a teenager.”
“As I set about the drudgery of slogging through some math class or something, I put the call out to friends – I needed music I could study to. My friend Thom Strickland is a true blue Southern weirdo and prolific home-recording freak (check out Bleachy Asshole to start), and he changed my life by giving me a DVD-R containing rips of every record listed on Alan Licht’s ‘Minimal Top 30.’ Originally published in Halana Magazine in 1996 as a top ten list, Licht continued to add to this aggregation of lesser-known minimalists over the years. This is how I discovered many composers I quickly grew to love (including Remko Scha and Giusto Pio, to name only two) but the record that completely blew my mind was Propellers in Love by Arnold Dreyblatt & the Orchestra of Excited Strings.”
“As studying music, this record was a disaster,” Tobias admits. “It was totally thrilling. I have the impression that Dreyblatt called his group the Orchestra of Excited Strings because his music was all about coaxing the upper partials out of taut strings being either bowed or struck, but this music was also just straight-up exciting. My bandmate Jim McHugh from Sunwatchers has a funny saying about the more famous minimalists – he likes a lot of their music, but sometimes finds it a little too ‘Beef, it’s What’s For Dinner.’ That is to say: blandly anthemic, à la Aaron Copland’s ‘Hoedown.’ If you’ll excuse me toeing the line of good metaphorical taste, Dreyblatt’s take on minimalism is lean red meat by comparison. The orchestration on this record is simultaneously skeletal and muscular: two players on upright basses “adapted for excited strings” (I understand this to mean they are strung with piano wire), drums, and an upright miniature piano and a violin, both somehow modified or prepared to maximally allow for harmonic effect. Check out this video to get a vibe for what this rhythmic/harmonic machine looked and sounded like.”
“You would never call a group like this sloppy, but the emphasis on the chaotic sound-mass of harmonics and the burly, rock n’ roll energy in the piano (shades of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) was a far cry from the rarified works of the minimalist big boys Steve and Philip. That music felt like the kind of job you got if you were a polished professional. Meanwhile, I’d been sleeping on floors on tour, washing dishes, etc. Calling the music I’d made up to that point ‘art’ felt like a stretch. Propellers in Love split the difference between self-respecting high art and gutsy, aggressive, unpretentious fun. I had no idea that kind of thing was possible and it ruined me for anything but music from there on out. Thank you Arnold Dreyblatt! Thank you, excited strings! Thank you, music!”
Thankfully this one has been saved from the obscurities bin of late by the good folks over at Superior Viaduct. The reissue label have been instrumental in getting a lot of more left field offerings back into stores and they reissued Dreyblatt’s Propellers In Love in 2017, and it remains still fairly available. Head below to pick one up, and while you’re at it, cop a listen to Tobais’ new art-pop opus over at his Bandcamp.
Support the artist. Buy it HERE.