Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rag Waters and Bitters and Blue Ruin

Today’s formative-album replay: Tom Waits Rain Dogs. “Bangin’ on a table with an old tin cup” goes one barked lyric in the menacing murder blues “Gun Street Girl,” late on Side Two of this definitive 1985 collection by the Bard of Whittier. That simple image, of a racket made with available objects, is Waits’s second-phase sound in a cracked nutshell, and the key to its integrity and acquired-taste appeal: that his music sounds like it was literally formed from, and played on, pieces of the crumbling, tumbling world his lyrics describes: pawnshop radios and broken umbrellas, a shower of hammer and nails, shipwreck trains and wooden legs, canebrake and scattering crows. Very little of this booming, wheezing, twanging, crinkling record sounds either premeditated or post-produced; it is all happening now, with the immediacy and unpredictability of a field recording by Harry Smith.

This should come as no surprise from an artist whose best album, Nighthawks at the Diner, is essentially a live word-jazz show, though that hails from his earlier junkie-Hoagy-Carmichael dispensation. Here, as in the previous kaleidoscope jumble Swordfishtrombones, Waits (and his indispensable partner in crime, Kathleen Brennan) have made that paradoxical artifact, a la Harry Partch or Robert Rauschenberg: an original piece of folk art, a made/found object. Dylan did something analogous, steeping himself so deep in American folk and blues that his voice (both as a singer and a writer) fused with its sources. But Waits’s tricks of ventriloquism and reclamation are both more encompassing and more theatrical. There are songs here--some great ones--but there’s a jagged carnival frame around all of them that’s as compelling, in some cases moreso, than the music inside it.

The record’s opener, the stomping nautical polka “Singapore,” echoes the climb-aboard throwdown of Swordfishtrombones’s opener, “Underground,” but surpasses it in headlong bravado--and this time out there’s no respite from the high-wire phantasmagoria and minor-key gypsy atmospherics. We teeter from the seasick swirl of “Clap Hands” to the clamped-down fury of “Cemetery Polka,” from the lean slice of “Jockey Full of Bourbon” to the sodden staggering of “Tango Till They’re Sore” and the sawed-off shotgun boogie of “Big Black Mariah.” By the time “Diamonds and Gold” rolls around, the artifice is showing a few seams (there's even a quote from the melody of “Chim Chim Cheree”). But that only makes the no-frills, all-feeling punch of the forlorn “Hang Down Your Head” land all the harder, followed by the hymn-like sagacity of “Time,” with its layered signifiers (“It’s time that you love” reading in at least two distinct ways) and aphoristic equanimity suggesting a song Waits is half-remembering as much as writing.

Side Two starts strong with a satisfyingly goofy, angular title song (highlighted by the call and response of Marc Ribot’s tensile, reptilian guitar) and the palette-cleansing spy chase of “Midtown.” Then it’s the William Burroughs/Ken Nordine prose poetry of “9th and Hennepin,” which I have to believe has a faint wink of self-parody (“I’ve seen it all...”), a pair of mostly convincing tough-guy blues blowouts (“Gun Street Girl,” “Union Square”), and the album’s only outright failure, the wannabe Stones country ballad “Blind Love,” which never clicks into its groove, though not for lack of strenuous trying. Waits regains his strut with the suave “Walking Spanish” and the lovely, quietly passionate “Downtown Train,” a kind of spiritual sequel to “Jersey Girl.” The album closes with a spare-parts instrumental and the Salvation Army hymn “Anywhere I Hang My Head,” which is a tad self-conscious and over-sung but not out of place, fading out of sight not with Waits’s howling growl but with the rumpled dignity of a New Orleans funeral march.

Waits may have made better records--as I say, my favorite is Nighthawks, though I’d entertain an argument that Mule Variations is his true masterpiece--but few that hang together as brashly as the clatter and steam of “Rain Dogs.”

Another Tom Waits post here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

We Throne Folk

Today’s formative-album replay: Camelot (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Some musicals aren’t just better on record than onstage--some may have found their ideal form on their Broadway or London cast album. I’ve often felt this about a few Sondheim scores, which I grew to love only after repeated rotations and still have yet to see staged satisfactorily, and any number of Weill shows I’m not sure I ever need to see staged (Johnny Johnson, looking at you). I have to guess in this case, since I’ve never seen Lerner & Leowe’s Arthurian variation onstage (and I’m not sure the film, which I once half-watched, counts), but the received wisdom about Camelot is that it just doesn’t work as well onstage as their other biggie, My Fair Lady.

Thing is, though, while I heartily gobbled that record up too, it never captured my heart like this faux-medieval fantasy of royal romance and mild mischief, with its heraldic trumpets and sweeping strings. And this replay made it clear why, apart from those assets: the retiring, self-effacing lead, Arthur, as conveyed indelibly in the dry but warm whisky baritone of Richard Burton. Even after all these years, his unique Welsh bemusement, at once regal and relaxed, starch-stiff yet welcoming as a toasty hearth, taps a rich seam of emotion (for me, at least) that anchors and elevates even the show’s more eye-rollingly twee moments (particularly the grating doggerel of the title song, in which L&L have taken a playful metaphor--weather as a gauge of a nation’s health--and somehow forgot to flesh out its underlying meanings, not to mention committed such lyrical crimes as “that’s how conditions are” and “those are the legal laws”).

A fixation on climate and seasons impressed me anew on this replay: not just the title song but the prim hoedown “The Merry Month of May” and the calendar-flipping swoon of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” even the seductive mists of “Follow Me.” Along those lines, I also clocked the way the impish merriment and bravado--the spring and summer--of Side One closes with the pivotal autumnal rumination “How to Handle a Woman,” and then Side Two opens with a pair of sincere if wintry love ballads, “If Ever” and the chastened “Before I Gaze at You Again,” the latter registering a striking change of tune as Guenevere’s laughing coquetry is all but silenced by the complications of true love.

I blush a bit now at how much my younger self thrilled to the needlingly cynical, punny “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and the mild bloody-mindedness and/or bawdiness of “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness.” But I returned with unchecked enthusiasm to the climactic “Guenevere,” a galumphing, modal march that hands the show's storytelling finale over to the chorus. That seems like it must have been a bold move, and I’m sure it raises (and/or solves) some interesting staging questions. Thankfully I don’t have to know the answer, though, to cherish this round-table roundelay in the only form I’ve ever known it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Hammer on the Slap and Tickle

Today's formative-album replay: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust. A painful, aggrieved grab bag that somehow sensationally coheres, this 1981 masterwork might be thought of as Revolver to Imperial Bedroom’s Sgt. Pepper. As explosive as it is eclectic, somehow both stark and polished, it has an unseemly urgency in its delivery that’s unmatched by anything in Costello’s work with the Attractions outside of This Year’s Model. But of course a central virtue of his early work in particular is that keen, spitting rage fits him like a sweat-through suit; in his prime he makes howls of shame and recrimination baroquely beautiful. Trust represents both the apotheosis of his brilliant first chapter as Angry Buddy Holly and a harbinger of the ageless, jack-of-all-trades artisan he’d soon settle into.

By most accounts this is the record where Costello started to feel his age, in part following the rock convention that marks 27 as a make-or-break year, and in part because he and his band were accelerating the process with the conventional upper-downer showbiz diet. But it’s not a drug influence I hear on Trust so much as a kind of acid reflux: While the accusatory venom of his songs’ unreliable narrators had previously sprayed some inevitable blowback on them as they lay waste to their targets, on this record the indignation and anger seem aimed inward more than outward. When he sings “You’ll never be a man/No matter how foreign bodies you can take,” it’s impossible not to hear it as self-reproach. The title of the album’s most astonishingly lovely song, a penny dreadful for just piano and voice, sums it up: “Shot With His Own Gun.”

If Costello incriminates himself more than ever before, the result is new reservoirs of near-compassion, or at least a wider-ranging lens of consideration, and new shades of vulnerability. The record feels distinctly cinematic, and he’s not the only character, or even always the lead: From the startling in media res throwdown of “Clubland” to the shuffling, simmering home brew of “Big Sister’s Clothes,” Trust lays a teeming panorama of barroom brawls and indiscreet assignations over a soundtrack as propulsive and varied as any Costello would offer until Spike. And the Attractions throughout sound like the most versatile bar band you’d ever dream of, from barreling rock to sidelong country, with Bruce Thomas’s bass occasionally almost singing like a vocal part, Steve Nieve’s piano and organ slashing and splashing at odd angles, and Pete Thomas’s surgical drums slicing through it all, especially the circumspect yet soaring morning-after pill “New Lace Sleeves.”

That song's lyrics, like the ambling, engagingly under-sung “Watch Your Step,” reportedly date from Costello’s teen years. As these are two of the album’s best and wisest cuts, does this give the lie to the idea that Trust represents some kind of badge of maturity? Perhaps, but I rather think that Costello was an old soul from the first--an old soul thrust into a seething, all-too-human body (with a froggy voice) that he punished with all the usual sins of the flesh but which, along the way, he honed into a richly expressive instrument. I’ve loved many of his records before and since, but for me Trust is the one on which that instrument first showed its full dynamic range.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grace Notes

I’ve been traveling, ostensibly vacationing, but not immune to a few random musical observations about songs that have shuffled themselves forward up on the old iPod in the leisure hours. A sampling:

“Many a New Day” Good Lord, what a great song. I’ve always loved it, tucked neatly in the middle of a score not short on lovable tunes. It's a perfect iteration of the kiss-off-for-now song (later varied but not improved by the likes of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “I’m Not at All in Love”), with a melody that’s somehow both flirtatiously trilly as well as broad-shouldered and matter-of-fact--both feminine and feminist, if you will. (I’ve also always adored the characteristically Hammerstein-ian bluntness and specificity of “I’ll scrub my neck and I’ll brush my hair.”)

But my ears perked up anew on a recent listen at the key trick of its lyric--“trick” might be too strong a word, as it’s laying there in plain sight, in the song’s title. The sleight of hand all these go-away-but-not-too-far songs have to pull off--much like their cousin, the I’m-not-in-love-with-you-yet song (“I’ll Know,” “If I Loved You,” or this score's “People Will Say We’re in Love”)--is to have it both ways, to give us the satisfaction of a breakup and the anticipation of a reunion (and, in this paradox, the pleasure of secret knowledge, something we know that the characters don't quite). And that’s where “Many a New Day” handily aces the form: While Laurie uses “never” all too freely (“Never have I once looked back to sigh,” “Never gonna think that the man I love/Is the only man among men”), her thesis statement blunts that finality: “Many a new day will dawn before I do,” i.e., weep over a man to come back. So it’s just a matter of time, then? We’re happy to wait, Laurey.

“On a Night Like This” I’d always liked this spirited Dylan pop number, but hearing it again today it hit me why: With its sprightly zydeco beat and a lyric so tender, convincingly joyous, and deceptively simple, so perfectly set and framed--each rhyme of “this” is teed up beautifully, as the scene-setting builds verse by verse, and he pulls off that old-school move of starting and ending the chorus with the title--it’s a bracing reminder that dammit, Dylan can be as good a light-music tunesmith as anyone ever when he wants to be.

“Lying” Sometimes one note can make a song. Case in point: In this sly bit of double-negative shade for pop-culture happy talk, Sam Phillips (and her producer, then-husband T-Bone Burnett) get many things right (including having their pal Elvis Costello play his guitar with pencils), but none more so than the last note of each chorus line, where she lets the “ing” of the title slip from the reassuring root note of its underlying chord into a memorably jarring major-7th interval (in this case, a C# over a D chord). This insistent little fly in the ointment, this crack in the facade, nicely undercuts any trace elements of preachiness (much as a similar major-7th on the last note of the chorus of Lily Allen’s “Smile,” come to think of it, lightly defuses that song’s gleeful effrontery).

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Des ailes en chandail, Des algues en paille

Today’s formative-album replay: Juliette Gréco. Much of this record makes me want to lie down, perhaps because a good amount of it sounds like it was sung from a reclining position, the singer’s head lifted just enough to emit sound, like an opium addict from her couch. Even when the orchestra is trotting jauntily along, Juliette Gréco--the thinking man’s Piaf--often sounds like she either can’t be bothered to sing at all, or is simply too wrecked by emotion to manage more than a sob or a moan. Lachrymose is not the the only shade she manages, of course: There is also the shy, warm coquette of “Deshabillez Moi,” the dashing bon vivant of “Jolie Mome,” and various modes of ageless Parisian mascot: party girl (“La Fete aux Copains”), wry sphinx (“Paname”), and jovial tourguide (“Paris Canaille,” “Accordeon”).

But the heart of this hits collection (yet another pivotal purchase inspired by my devotion to Stephanie Vlahos’s peerless French cabaret act) beats in Gréco’s world-weary, half-swallowed, spoke-sung lyrics, a sophisticated Gallic cousin to the artless croak of Dietrich. In songs like the heartbroken “Chanson de vieux amants,” the warily vulnerable “Il N’y a Plus D’apres,” the ruminative lover’s farewell “Si Tu T’Imagines,” or the emotionally caved-in “Les Enfants Qui S'Aiment,” she pulls off the actor’s trick of heightening the drama by underplaying it. When she runs the manic-depressive gamut in a self-consciously zero-to-60 number like “Je Hais Les Dimanches,” it comes off as a bit of a gimmick, while the flickering alternation of past/present, sweet/sour, and major/minor conjured by a reverie like “C’Etait Bien,” on the other hand, is all the richer for seeming tossed off.

The absolute molten core of the album’s Proustian magic is the snow-globe carousel waltz of “Coin de Rue,” which feels somehow neither spoken nor sung but rendered as a limpid, candlelit incantation (it doesn’t hurt that its distinctive harmonic ambivalence--it’s in a major key but sounds graver than many a song in a minor key--is singularly French). If many of these songs have the sound of a heart sinking, “Coin de Rue” is the sound of a bright, shiny little memory bobbing down a dark, eddying stream to sweet oblivion. That’s a restorative best taken lying down.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Causally Connectible

Today’s formative-album replay: The Police Synchronicity. Oh, how I came to despise this record, largely thanks to a freshman dorm roommate who owned and played to a nub a total of three CDs (the other two were the Cars' Heartbeat City and a collection of Sousa marches, I kid you not). By then I had already outgrown this ubiquitous 1983 megahit, but having it pounded further into my ears throughout the fall of 1986 effectively killed its appeal for me, even one song I'd call a favorite, "Synchronicity II."

Surely more than enough time has passed to earn it a fresh listen. And while I still can't rank this, the Police's final album, any higher than their fourth best (after the first three), this replay helped me recover some strong impressions, if not quite my first. For one: It hangs together, sound-wise, remarkably well, from the chirpy ringtone loop of the sloganeering opener (“Synchronicity I”) to the chiming, artfully out-of-tune jazz jangle of the cynical closer (“Murder by Numbers”*). Also: As with even the Police’s worst songs (there aren’t that many), it’s all designed and played at such a high level of craft that it’s hard not to admire.

But let’s just name it: If Ghost in the Machine is the record where frontman Sting began his self-styled transformation into pop philosopher-king, Synchronicity is the one in which he fully matriculated to the priesthood of his own mind, where every song is a sermon or a book report. This is also the record which banished every last vestige of faux-Caribbean sunlight from the band’s sound, aiming instead squarely for an MOR pop/rock pocket that reaches its nadir with the interminable Tantric shimmer of “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” (Even the one arguably tropical-ish number, “Walking in Your Footsteps,” feels continents away from the dub stomp of “Walking on the Moon.”)

And yet: Even in mainstream mode the Police can still pack an odd, astringent punch, with Sting’s searing whinge of a voice and darting bass intersecting with Andy Summers’s artfully unlikely, unobtrusive guitar lines over the alert, one-step-ahead crackle of Stewart Copeland’s drums. Their idiosyncratic sound-meld may find its apotheosis in “King of Pain,” in which Sting’s most over-reaching lyric miraculously sticks the landing, I think in large part due to the song’s alternately sparse and surging arrangement, as it bursts from the stark modal chant of the verse into the major-key splash of the chorus. It almost sounds like Sting may be laughing at himself; either way he's definitely laughing.

The other high point, the full-on rockestral horror of “Synchronicity II,” features another ambitious lyric with a layered, three-dimensional musical arrangement to match. We almost don’t notice, as the song brings its cauldron of dread and suspense to a delicious boil, that it's not about synchronicity at all but another of Jung’s pet theories, the “shadow” that acts out our repressed fantasies. Of course, it’s always a mistake to take pop music as scholarship or scripture, even--or especially--when its makers conceive it to be so. What’s still devilishly seductive about much of this record, for all its flaws (hello, “Mother”), is that no matter how heady or heavy its frontman’s literary intentions, Sting and co. retained the chops to defy the gravity of pretension with lean, leaping pop.

*An avid fan has pointed out that this was not the final track on vinyl, which was "Tea in the Sahara," but was a "bonus" on cassette and CD. The latter were the only way I ever consumed the album. I think the point about the consistency of the sound stands either way.

Previous Police replay: Regatta de Blanc.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Eyes Hear Something

Today’s formative-album replay: Teresa Stratas, The Unknown Kurt Weill. Teresa Stratas’s throaty soprano doesn’t just convey character; on this striking collection of lieder by the 20th century’s greatest composer, her voice is a character, embodying the intimate dramas, bleak poetry, and protest dioramas conjured by a series of lyricists ranging from Maurice Magre to Oscar Hammerstein, all strutting and fretting on the starkly lit stage set by Weill’s music. This endlessly expressive voice-character cajoles, brays, insinuates, exults, resigns, such that you don’t need the lyrics translated to understand intuitively what’s going on. The downcast glow of “Nanna’s Lied” evokes paradoxical nostalgia for an ugly past even before you know it’s a wizened sex worker’s lament; the bittersweet tango of “Muschel von Margate” bespeaks a mounting outrage, fitting for a song that begins on a quaint seaside boardwalk and ends up as an indictment of blood-for-oil petro-imperialism. We are witness to wrenching breakups and alternately bleak or glittering cityscapes; there’s a Dada caper (“Klops Lied”), a utopian prayer (“Youkali”), a sneering Nazi parody (“Schickelgruber”), and a more sober warning about same (“Und was bekam des soldaten weib”). Rosie the Riveter even makes an appearance (“Buddy on the Nightshift”).

Perhaps the song that best sums up the record’s mercurial emotional verite is “Der Aschiedsbrief,” the scribbled diary entry (the lyric is by Erich Kästner) of a jilted lover, whose alternating bouts of pique, curiosity, anger, and nonchalance are mirrored perfectly in Weill’s springy, waltzing major-minor chords and meandering melody, and in Stratas’s heightened-conversational delivery. Liltingly gorgeous and smilingly equivocating, it's the sound of someone thinking out loud to themselves.

The whole thing is a kind of scrapbook that way, though that makes it seem too desultory; for all the angular rises and falls of Weill's music and Stratas’s eerily symbiotic rendering of it--I’m tempted to call it her identification with it--there is a consistent if luxuriously rubato heartbeat to the record. Though she would later do a lavish orchestral album of (slightly) better known Weill tunes, this 1981 piano-and-voice record--essentially a trove of barely heard trunk songs spanning the years 1925 to 1944 which Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, wisely entrusted to Stratas--makes the case for them as canon alongside the composer’s theatrical masterworks. Seldom has the human voice sounded so beautifully, complicatedly human.

Previous Weill replays: Die Dreigroschenoper, The Songs of Kurt Weill.