Wednesday, April 26, 2017

This Is a Journey Into (Dolby) Sound

I recently had occasion to discover that The Arizona Republic, where I got my first professional bylines during the summers between a few of my college years, has some of my old features and reviews online (well, sort of). What a joy, then, to find this review of Thomas Dolby from the spring of 1988, when I was newly 20 years old. It even includes one of my most obscure call-outs ever (to S.Z. Sakall, pictured above). Enjoy!

Dolby, friends serve a funkadelic menu

By Rob Kendt
Special for The Arizona Republic
May 30, 1988
Hunger is the best sauce. Proof positive: Sound delays and extenuating factors kept the Friday night crowd at Chuy's hungry until the wee minutes of Saturday morning, when Thomas Dolby and his Lost Toy People finally took the stage. With expectations and the drink tally thus heightened, the crowd relished every moment in close quarters with the British keyboardist.

And he seemed to as well. Critics used to knock him for his prim, icy presence in concert; now they might make fun of his loose, goofy warmth and ear-to-ear grin. Dressed like a beatnik flasher, in a beret and an overcoat, with a face that eerily resembled that of character actor S.Z. Sakall (minus the extra chins), Dolby was less the nutty professor than a hippie schoolboy Friday. The Lost Toy People, a motley crew of six L.A. musicians Dolby enlisted for his new album and tour, matched the weird party spirit of the evening. Ranging from youngish drummer David Owens to camp-sexy backing vocalist Laura Creamer, the band executed playful choreography.

Fronting the stage with a strap-on keyboard, Dolby did some silly-nilly acrobatics with bassist Terry Jackson, who, with Owens, kept the beat thumping. The 80-minute set didn't really start to cook, though, until Dolby hauled out the George Clinton-penned “Hot Sauce.” The ensemble sustained a funkadelic good time for five-odd songs, ending up with Dolby's initial radio hit, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Clearly, something amazing is afoot when a punchy club crowd shouts "Science!" on cue.

And lest anyone be mistaken about the lighter side of Dolby, during the incisive misogyny of “Airhead,” he and the band went to great lengths to show that "The man's tongue is in his cheek." Dolby even obliged with a physical demonstration.

The music mix got a bit belabored along with the humor. The band's too many cooks made soup of Dolby's earlier, more delicate pop. Impeccable studio songs like “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and “Windpower” don't stand up to a punch-drunk jam session the way the newer, funkier stuff does. The haunting, jazzy “I Scare Myself” was the sole exception.

A note or gesture may have seemed out of place, but there was nothing amiss in the spirit of the evening. It is always inspiring to see petulant earnestness surrender to rollicking abandon. Dolby's refrain these days could be Dylan's old line: "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now." Or, to rephrase “Windpower,” "Switch off the mind and let the butt decide."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

If It Be His Will

Leonard Cohen at home in Los Angeles in September, 2016.Photograph by Graeme Mitchell for The New Yorker
Just caught up with David Remnick's extraordinary profile of Leonard Cohen, and though I haven't even finished it yet, I feel the need to address the typically weird and woolly Dylan section, in which Remnick gets some "detailed, critical" quotes from one master about another. The results are...odd.
1. Dylan is right to draw attention to Cohen's music in conjunction with his lyrics. Though one may detect a little special pleading here on Bob's part (this myopia is often true of assessments of his work too), and though I don't class Cohen as a first-rate melodist, the point needs to be made again and again that songs are at their very root not simply music added to lyrics or vice versa but fresh, breathing hybrid creatures whose constituent parts should be pulled apart, if at all, with extreme delicacy. Which leads to...
2. As the last bit of Chronicles proved, Dylan has only a passing grip on music theory. His assessment of "Sisters of Mercy" is roughly correct about the song's rising-falling structure, but no, it doesn't open on a minor key. I guess you can't fact-check Dylan!
3. Irving Berlin? That has to be one the most perverse, po-faced comparisons ever made. I get that Dylan is trying to upend the stereotype of Cohen as Dr. Gloom by juxtaposing with him Mr. Sunshine, but...yeah. That's straight-up weirdo talk.
As for the rest of the piece, while I'm a hot-and-cold Cohen fan (I generally prefer his songs to his recordings, and find many of them uniquely moving in performance, including by myself), it's a good read if you haven't already.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Dash of Excitement

So naturally I've got lots of Prince tracks on the brain of late--beats, choruses, lyrics, etc. But the thing I most respond to in most music, and one of the many reasons I cherish his, is harmony. That's why I tripped out on the mind-bending flat-V in "Sometimes It Snows in April," why "Ballad of Dorothy Parker" is maybe my favorite of all his songs (well, it's not just the harmony in that case, but those chords!), why I love deep cuts like "The Question of U" and "Joy in Repetition"...and why a bracing string filigree in the otherwise straightforward ditty "Take Me With U" just knocks me out. Over the song's sunny, "1999"-ish synth hook in A, Prince layers a rapid little seven-note riff more or less in the key and scale of B, and it gives the song a little shot of adrenaline each time (it first appears at 1:06). If may not make the song bitonal, exactly, but it certainly feels bi-curious. And of course it's not just a random decoration: It gives this song about escape with a lover a real dash of adventure and excitement.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Sometimes Prince Goes to Bb

My nominee for most mind-bending chord in Prince's whole catalog: the Bb he goes to on "wish" in "Sometimes It Snows in April." The song is a pretty straightforward (and heartrending) ballad in E and the chorus has a very soothing Amaj7 feel...until he sings an F natural over a Bb chord on "wish" (1:35 below). It feels wrong in the best way, almost cubist, and I guess you could say it suggests the profound disorientation of grief and/or the impossibility of a wish for eternal love. Anyway, it hits me like a quiet thunderbolt and gives me a little shiver every time I hear it (and try to sing along with it). Facebook post with comments here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Williams Files

Sometimes when you blog about a topic you really care about, however intermittently, and you happen to know editors of publications other than the one you run, it may happen that you're asked to write about the topics you know too much about for actual for-sale publications. That was the case when Allison Adato, an editor at Entertainment Weekly books and an old college friend of mine, was putting together a Star Wars guide last fall and she asked me to write about what made John Williams's scores so special. I'd written at some length about revisiting the original 1977 soundtrack album here; and I happily obliged giving the scores another spin in anticipation of that what's-it-called movie about the force. A sample:
Think of the opening anthem, which accompanies each chapter’s expositional crawl: This octave-spanning tune, in wholesome B-flat major, is irresistibly stirring not only for its leap-frogging melody but for what that melody leaps over: a harmony built partly from a “quartal” chord, so-called because it’s essentially a stack of fanfare-like fourth intervals (the opening notes of “Taps” or the “Wedding March” are fourths), and a restless rhythm in the underscoring that alternates off-beat bursts of syncopation with an even-keeled march, keeping this otherwise straightforward processional on its toes.

Bowie Diddley

Among the many musical tropes that Bowie returned to throughout his long career, one he especially seemed to relish was the 3-2 clave tattoo known as the Bo Diddley beat. After spending weeks swimming in his catalogue, from its depths to its shallows, I can trace the line from his first real rock album, A Space Oddity, on which the beat recurs repeatedly, in the moving folk ballad "God Knows I'm Good," and in one memorable instrumental acoustic-guitar figure in the title track, but most forcefully in the beguiling jam "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" (beat starts at 1:10 and doesn't stop)... the middle of his early Ziggy period, with the snaky "Panic in Detroit..." the peak of his Berlin period, in the underlying feel of his great "Sound and Vision" (it's most pronounced on the "chorus," which first appears at 1:05)... this amazing variation on the beat, retooled for 7/4, from Scary Monsters' "Up the Hill Backwards"...

...and finally to this hard-edged variation, from his last record ★, "Sue"...
And the beat goes on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jamming Good

A few random Bowie thoughts after a week-and-change of binging on his catalog:

1. VOICE: I read and heard very little last week about the extreme oddity of his vocal range and stylings, which he used to full effect from "Life on Mars" (try singing that whole thing through without resorting to falsetto) right up to his last record. Really, it was an extraordinary instrument, and I think it's safe to call it unique in rock. (I remember thinking how perverse it was for him to cover the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" in a bass croak; I'm sure he was having a laugh on us with that one.)

2. ACCENT: Unlike his countrymen in the Beatles or the Stones or the Who, even Elvis Costello, who mostly ape American diction, Bowie's crisp London accent was always front and center (with a few arguable exceptions when he was singing full-on blues rock very early in his career, and at his glam-rock height). I wonder if it had something to do with Anthony Newley's influence--one might question a lot about Newley's work (and taste), but never where he was from. (Strangely enough, it's that accent that may be what most moves me about Bowie's amazing cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America," from a concert after 9/11.) 3. SONGCRAFT: I'd never really taken stock till last week of what an astonishing tunesmith Bowie was. I had registered the hugely varying sounds of his records and clocked some of his obvious templates (blues rock, Philly soul, Kraut rock, folk), and I'd certainly noticed the times he grooved on simple progressions ("Golden Years," "Five Years," "Fashion," "Sound and Vision," etc.) vs. the times he was making what sounded like more ambitious/odd pieces, structurally or harmonically ("Station to Station," "Ashes to Ashes," "Width of a Circle," "Life on Mars," side two of Low). But taking apart some of his tunes in the past week, I'm more in awe than ever. Case in point: "Queen Bitch" has always been a favorite song of mine, and that simple, Lou Reedy I-V-IV progression on side-by-side acoustic and electric guitars is reason enough to love it at first hook. And the chorus always sounded to me like it's got some sort of harmonic lift out of the verse, then a sidelong turn back into it. I checked it out and that's all true, but a little weirder than that: The verse is in C, and the chorus alternates between B and D (getting there with help from E and A), then pivots back out from B to a C  ("Oh God I could do better than that"). That sneaky chromaticism is not something I expected in a blues-rock jam. Now that I can hear it, I love it all the more. This is happening all over the place with his songs now that I'm freshly attuned to it.
4. PRODUCTION: I've read and heard a lot about how he worshipped spontaneity and serendipity in the studio, hated to do multiple takes, etc. That doesn't seem to square with the rich, polished, questing, deeply intentional sounds I've been hearing in my earbuds for the past week; apart from the weirdly under-recorded vocals of "Watch That Man" (anyone know what was up with that?), there isn't really a sloppy or half-baked moment on his records. There are some perfunctory performances and the occasional lapse into slickness, and some very clear stylistic dead ends (Young Americans, I'm looking at you). But nothing that sounds dashed off.

5. LYRICS: Finally, as many of the more astute commenters recently pointed out, the whole Bowie-as-character-chameleon thing is way overblown. In fact, after 1976 he stopped creating characters altogether (slightly changing your look and sound, as he did thereafter, is standard pop-star procedure). While it's true that the stark change-ups of the early '70s, and the fact that he'd gone through what seemed like so many, were what first clued me in that he was essentially a theatre artist in rock and pop form, I could have JUST LISTENED TO THE LYRICS. Duh! His first hit "Space Oddity" didn't just set up the Bowie-as-alien trope that he riffed on throughout his whole career--it has multiple voices in conversation, and tells a story. In other words: a little one-act play. So is the meta-narrative "Life on Mars," and of course the concept albums Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs...and so on. One smart pushback I heard against interpreting his last record Blackstar, and the stage show Lazarus, as autobiographical is that's exactly the kind of thing Bowie pointedly NEVER did. Like David Byrne or Randy Newman, Bowie didn't need to put on a character; his songs were already doing the job.