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In the documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, the film’s subject sometimes comes across as a bit frustrated by his cult of personality. One thing he bemoans more than once is that most people know his name but few buy his music. The film itself is also more focused on his interviews than his performances. It didn’t even take day after I published my review (Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words highlights the mind behind the music … and the ideology — a film review) before a friend texted me to ask “Who is Frank Zappa?”

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cleancutcThe revival of analog releases and recording methods is more than a kitschy approach to music in a world dominated by on-line hits and streams. It can actually form the music. Miami-based musician Alex Caso understands the role that the analog plays in creative restraint. It is one of the reasons why he self-released his two recent albums — under the alter ego Alx Czo — as cassettes.

Perched on the edge of Independent Ethos’ leather couch, Caso is decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and canvas shoes. His translucent blue sunglasses are perched atop his bushy hair, as we share a listen to his ambient album, She is a Galaxy. He checks to make sure the noise reduction is off on our sound system. It’s the way he prefers people listen to his new albums.

Releasing his music on tape is not so much a choice to satisfy audiophiles as it is to have a physical end-product that defines the music. Let’s face it, cassettes have an inherit hiss by nature, and there is always a generational loss from the master, but when music can take those qualities and run with them it transcends the medium’s limitations, and Caso’s luscious, dreamy, rough-hewn music works aptly with it.

Mujeres cassette

It’s not about pristine sound quality. The subtle hiss of tape adds an almost subconscious layer to the music, which itself is quite layered with the dreamy wash of synths and guitars. That it is rich with electronics that reverberate with a layered luster somehow makes it appropriate for the medium. But do not call it ramshackle or gimmicky. Caso put a lot of consideration into these albums.

Listening to the wash and sparkle of the ambient album, Caso admits a preference for this music over what he calls his “pop” record, Mujeres Infieles, which roughly translates from his native Spanish to “Unfaithful Women.” As you may infer, his preference is not so much about the quality of the music as it is what inspired the different works.

He wrote and recorded Mujeres over the course of a year, between 2011 and 2012. He calls them love songs, but they are not the uplifting sort of ditties that elevate the romantic notion to a pedestal. “I work a lot out of emotional needs,” Caso explains. “A lot of these songs I wrote after a break up. It’s all emotionally based. It’s like exorcising demons. They’re what I call heartmares.”

In fact, the album features two tracks named “Heartmares,” a “dub” version that closes out Side A and the original version, that ends the album. The dub version is an instrumental of layered, twinkling melodies and hums, that also has a steady, casuallashing crackle that actually sounds like a brittle, old tape. The original actually sounds like an early Depeche Mode song, if Depeche Mode made spy music. The only vocal is a distant howling wind, distorted by a ghostly echo.

It’s generally hard to understand what Caso sings on the album of pop songs. It could be by design, as he’s not really into revealing details about who the songs are about. Though, he says, they may know who they are. But it matters little, as it’s about his affection for sonics, which sound inspired by early Magnetic Fields and My Bloody Valentine. The album opens with “Princess Fantasy,” featuring an electronic beat mixed into a hissing, percolating melody that chugs along like a brilliant early Magnetic Fields song, in fact.

He is aware that ‘80s and ‘90s-era music is a big influence on him. He says pop songs from back then were just better than those of today. He notes there is just no vision in commercial or pop songwriting anymore. “The old guys were right because every decade the songs are getting worse,” he bemoans. “Everything now is a dance remix or songs about butts/big booty girls or a generic hum to drink your coffee at Starbucks.”

His vocals are mixed into the music in such a way that it is hard to make out exactly what he is singing, but the ambiguity is part of the music’s charm. During “Princess Fantasy,” I may have heard “She belongs to Satan” at one point. It works, as these tapes are a sonic statement to an era with sly little nods to its medium. Within the album there are also sonic effects like warped piano and some clicks of mechanics that might seem like the aural symptom of an aged cassette tape. That the music is often muscular and catchy is testament to this Miami music veteran’s skill as a songwriter.

Whereas Mujeres was completed in a year’s time, he notes She is a Galaxy is the product of roughly a decade of ideas. The springboard often came from a need to wind down from a night of work. “A lot of this stuff was recorded at 4 to 5 o’clock in the morning after DJ-ing,” he says.

Galaxy cassette

Sometimes he would be wired from the rush of spinning and in need of mellowing at home, so he would brew up some ambient music on his keyboards and computer. He admits that the effects of the buzz of excitement, libations and sometimes exhaustion was not always conducive to judging his work. When he would wake the next day and listen back to the results he could either be delightfully surprised or horrified. Though he admits to the challenge of this music, he says he preferred working on the ambient work over the pop songs because of the amount of free-flowing creativity involved. “It’s based on a sound, and then you go from there,” he says.

Still, the former member of the Miami-based band The Waterford Landing — among other area groups — notes that he enjoyed working solo. Even though he also admits missing some aspects of collaboration. He found himself with some surprising mic checkchallenges when dealing with some elements of the pop songs, from the way the music sounded to the bridges within the songs. “When I was in a band, things would get recorded faster,” he explains. “It’s always better working with more heads, and sometimes you get in the way of recordings with self-doubt.”

But he is quite happy with the results, and the neat package of the cassette offers a sense of closure and accomplishment. He says it’s about preserving an era, even if some of that was documenting an emotionally painful time (he’s currently in a content steady relationship). Music is by its nature ephemeral, but these tapes capture his songs in a satisfying physical object. “I wanted some sort of document,” Caso says.

He also says the package signifies the end of a project in a nice tidy physical object, but it also offers something deeper. “It is nostalgic too,” he admits. “It reminds me of when I was a kid. There is something about the sound quality.”

He only had 50 tapes manufactured of each album, and he still has a few left. He says he found the process easy and enjoyable. Now, Caso is already considering releasing more music, if not his then someone else’s. “If I could keep it as a boutique label, I’d be happy,” he notes.

Hans Morgenstern

You can order either cassette via Alx Cxo’s Bandcamp page: www.alxczo.bandcamp.com, and stream them in their entirety at no cost. There is also a 6-song covers EP called “Under Cover,” which you can even download for free. Both these albums are also available in the Miami area via Sweat Records and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at Radio-Active Records. Tomorrow is International Cassette Store Day, and both stores will be running specials during that day.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I have seen many live shows in my years appreciating alternative music, including some loud ones. Ever since EMF left me in so much pain at the Cameo Theater in Miami Beach back in the early nineties that I had to leave the show before the first encore ended, leaving my ears ringing for a week, the ensuing years of damage to my ears has continued with barely noticeable side effects. In other words, more often the not, I leave live shows with little, if any, ear ringing, as all those little hairs inside the ear were mostly wiped out by a damn one-hit-wonder.

Friday night at Miami’s Vagabond, however, Crocodiles worked voodoo on my eardrums with their appropriately spooky, dense pop rock, leaving my ears ringing into the next morning. Not that it gives me something to celebrate, it just offers some insight into how loud this band was. Adding to the surreal quality of the music, the five piece of three dudes and two gals from San Diego, dressed in mostly black and made little effort to connect with the audience just a foot from the stage beyond offering a whoosh of music played at maximum volume. It was an assault on an audience that ate it up with abandon, particularly the gyrating young women who flanked either side of the stage decked out in their finest ironic hipster outfits, at times rubbing up on each other. Despite a fine sampling of what only Miami can offer in a female audience,  lead singer Brandon Welchez, hid behind classic Ray Bans and posed on stage with swaggering but distant cool. He said nothing to the crowd except “Apocalypse!” and “Doomsday!” ahead of the following day’s prediction by some Christian fundamentalist minister who has built a religious empire on the idea that May 21, 2011 would mark the arrival of the rapture.

On to the music and a little on how it translated live: The loudness was not all to the band’s benefit, as a lot of the band’s catchy quality disappeared in the white noise of the volume. However, it allowed for an aural hallucinatory experience as only the loudest music can, and I can appreciate that. However, the price you pay for droning noise is a loss in dynamics that chased more than one audience to the patio to listen to Alex Caso spin the “weird stuff.”

The experience of Crocodiles live is quite different from listening to their newest album Sleep Forever (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com). The opening track, which you can hear in the video uplaoded to YouTube below, translated particularly nice live.

Whereas “Mirrors” opens the album with a looping almost Krautrock-like drone with a drum machine and quietly swelling feedback, as keyboards noodle out an entrancing melody, live it becomes a whole other beast. Alianna Kalaba beats the skins in an entranced state doing a decent Klaus Dinger (of Neu!), while keyboardist Robin Eisenberg breaks out a droning high-speed organ melody. The mouth-open expression of guitarist Charles Rowell as he choked his instrument for the decorative feedback and the closed-eyed stillness of bassist Marco Gonzalez, showed they were into the din, too. Welchez added to the bombast by picking up a guitar for the song. It was a nice five-minute exploration of entrancing rhythm and noise, but for the band to truly live up to Spacemen 3 comparisons would have demanded a little more self-indulgence.

It was moments like that which best suited the loudness of the show, and it was best experienced with full attention, hence my lack of usual videos that accompany my live reviews. Though I never made a video of “Mirrors” that night, there is a great full live show by the Crocodiles at a music festival in Germany here. “Mirrors” starts 15 minutes in, so you can have an idea of its live translation.

I also might fault the sound to the venue. The opening act, West Palm Beach’s the Band in Heaven voiced their concerns, as they struggled with the sound throughout their set. On stage, the lead singer protested about an hour’s worth of sound-checking for a shoddy end result (not his words verbatim), and he also assured the audience the trio sounded better on CD, offering audience members a free CD for the taking.

Despite the sound issues, I stand by my personal experience of enjoying the short set of psychedelic-influenced dream pop produced by Crocodiles during a set that ended way too soon. I was able to video one song, one of their poppier moments called “Hearts of Love,” thanks to my friend Kristen who leant me her camera and uploaded the video on YouTube (it actually sounds better on YouTube than it did live, as the camera must have one heck of a smart microphone). Watch it here:

Crocodiles’ only up-coming live date is in their home state of California, according to their blog page:

June 5, Oceanside, CA @ 94.9 Independence Jam

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)