It Took a Dream to Make Me See

Formative-album replay: The Best of George Jones, Vol. 1: Hardcore Honkytonk. I’ve said before that if there’s a single key that has unlocked my appreciation of genres I once resisted, and thereby broadened my musical tastes, it has been learning to love, or at least tolerate, vocal sounds and styles I didn’t think I liked. Years ago it was the trained classical voice, which opened me up to opera and art songs; more recently it was Joni Mitchell, who followed a long line of acquired vocal tastes—Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman—into my pantheon of favorites, alongside other greats I had to teach myself to appreciate (Donald Fagen, Mick Jagger, Richard Thompson, Geddy Lee).

Another big hurdle I’m glad I got over: country. My resistance—like that of many, I suspect—to the twang and diction of country vocalists, as well as to the ostensibly corny harmonies and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, stands in for a whole regime of taste and class anxiety. But at the end of the day it's music, some of it is as great as any in any genre you can name; it just takes open ears to hear it (hands on an instrument doesn't hurt either). I’m not sure what my gateway was, possibly a combination of k.d. lang, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton—a typical résumé for non-country fans. The reverence Elvis Costello expressed for the form, to the point of recording an all-too-respectable record of country covers with Billy Sherrill in Nashville, opened my mind to the idea that the genre might be worth another listen beyond these rock tourist faves.

The hushed reverence with which Costello and others spoke of George Jones (to the point of writing a song for and recording it with him) eventually led me to this now out-of-print collection of early cuts. It was in many ways an ideal introduction to a singer I now consider one of, if not the, greatest ever to open his mouth. For one thing, the sound and songcraft on this collection of tunes from the early ’60s is resolutely old-school, four-square country, all shuffles and steel and sad-sack barfly bluster; this was all from the era before the countrypolitan Sherrill, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the duets and drunken drama with Tammy Wynette, an era which has the compensation of making the most of Jones's husky lower register.

And as it turns out, the boxy shapes of these early songs are ideal echo chambers for the distinctive rise and fall of Jones’s extraordinarily tender and nuanced instrument. If I was looking for a demonstration that country singing, far from being stoically macho or musically simplistic, could be as ornamented as a baroque partita, as melismatic as Aretha Franklin, here was Jones, rappelling virtuosically with aplomb up and down the phrases of songs good, bad, and indifferent (there are some clunkers on here, as there are throughout his checkered career). Though he attributed his penchant for melisma to the influence of fellow Texan Lefty Frizzell, Jones' artistry is on a whole nother level. Listen to how many notes he wrings from the words “before” and from the words of the title in the song below; what impresses is not just the technical dexterity but the voluptuous musicality, which, as with any great singer, from Nusrat to Sinatra, has the interpretive power of a great instrumentalist:

Indeed, I mean no shade on the rest of country music when I say that extended exposure to Jones’s genius both makes a decisive case for the form’s huge expressive potential and spoils me for any artist whose instrument is less exquisitely attuned. It’s hard to do much better for a description than James Taylor’s insight that Jones “sounds like a steel guitar. It’s the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos. The dynamic of it is very tight and really controlled—it’s like carving with the voice.” Carving with the most delicate of knives, that is, and cutting through a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast for the ears.

Que vivir el momento feliz

Today's formative-album replay: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos. Can music be metaphorical? I’m not talking about program music or songs with lyrics, which by definition have clear authorial intentions and meanings, but about something closer to the marrow of music itself, to its sound, to what musicians do, and all that can mean by itself. Can a trombone be a giraffe, say, a cello a lover, a drum a machine?

In the case of guitarist Marc Ribot, metaphor not only seems like the only way to begin to describe what he does; it seems to be somehow the level he’s working on too. When playing a solo on an ostensible rock record, like Tom Waits’s “Clap Hands” or Elvis Costello’s “Chewing Gum,” what he does is a kind of architectural graffiti, a fractal splatter that cracks and even reshapes the song’s foundations in its image. On a solo record like Saints, he seems to be communing with spirits inside the body of his guitar, coaxing them out and wrestling them down for massage and vivisection in a kind of primitive but brightly lit operating theatre. (“St. James Infirmary” indeed.)

On his greatest record, Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, a.k.a. The Prosthetic Cubans, the metaphorical register seems more straightforward: In stripping down the conjunto arrangements of classics by the pathbreaking Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez to a quintet, Ribot is making his Fender Jaguar stand in for horns, winds, strings, vocals, even percussion. Ribot has spoken about the way sax players like Coltrane, Dolphy, and Albert Ayler have influenced his playing, and how playing with Waits is a kind of acting assignment in which the instruments are like a cast of characters, so it's hardly news that his guitar can travel to unlikely places and take on roles it's not accustomed to. 

But there’s something else going on in this deceptively slow-boiling record, which starts with a long, brooding mood piece by Alfredo Boloña, “Aurora en Pekin” (“Dawn in Peking”), starts to simmer with the Rodriguez son “Aqui Como Alla,” then takes sudden nimble flight with “Como Se Goza en el Barrio” and the inspired original “Postizo.” From that peak it grinds through the metronomic “No Me Llores Mas,” boogies down with the woozy, punchy “Los Teenagers Bailan Changui,” shuffles sidelong through the smoky “Fiesta en el Solar,” devolves to clenched spoken-word with “La Vida Es Un Sueno,” lingers over the title sentiment of “Esclavo Triste,” then shimmies offstage with the Sabu Martinez bop “Choserita Plena.” It's a perfect program, a concert in miniature, and through it all Ribot’s guitar—almost entirely playing, or rather singing, single-note lines—is the Tesla coil bringing it all to uncanny life.

The question is: Why does guitar, and Ribot's guitar in particular, seem to be able to dig down to the essence of this music? (Ribot has self-effacingly reported that most musicians from Cuba find his band’s take on these tunes, standards in their homeland, to be hilarious—though in fact his original Postizos band included Miami Sound Machine maestro Robert J. Rodriguez, an authentic rather than a prosthetic Cuban). I think the answer is subtle, even spiritual (and what is music but spirit given temporal form?): It is that Arsenio Rodriguez—a blind genius from the Matanzas province who created or synthesized most of the rhythmic and sonic tropes of mid-century Cuban son montuno—was a tres player. The tres, a distinctive Afro-Cuban guitar tuned in an open major key (typically three octave-spanning pairs of strings sounding G-G, C-C, E-E), is a sunny-sounding instrument as strong on rhythmic propulsion as melody. Yet the instrument doesn’t dominate Rodriguez’s seminal recordings of the 1940s and ’50s, and that’s because among his central innovations was to build songs up and out by having horns, percussion, vocals, and piano mimic the chordal ostinatos, or guajeos, of the tres. The counterpoint among these layers, as much as the music's distinctive clave rhythms—incredibly, Rodriguez is credited with the not insignificant idea of adding a conga to the conjunto—is what gives his songs their compositional richness.

You may see where I’m going with this: that Ribot could hear this music’s essential guitar underpinnings, 
even in songs where Rodriguez’s tres isn’t front and center(In cases where it is, as in the blazing solo in the middle of this one, you can hear the link to Ribot clearly.While Ribot handily proves his mettle as a composer in his own right (“Postizo” is arguably the album’s high point), the sympathetic wavelength he is able to tap with a long-dead master marks him as one of the most highly attuned interpretive performers I’ve had the pleasure to witness. What Ribot is doing is not “more than” music somehow, though it can certainly feel like that; like the work of all the greatest musicians, his playing reminds us just how much music can do and signify, which is to say quite a lot indeed.

For easy comparison, here's a playlist of the Cuban originals and the Ribot covers:

The Hoyt of Fashion

Composer Hoyt Curtin with William Hanna.
Surely there's a corollary to the famous Noël Coward quote, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," that speaks to the unique power of a television or radio theme song, or even just a snippet of music, to signify and conjure a whole universe. (The Michael Friedman formulation "The song makes a space" has been on my mind lately.) There are current podcasts whose opening music lasts just a few bars but which is as indelible to me as any pop chorus. And what child of the 1970s doesn't have this rattling around somewhere in their brainpan:
Likewise, for every vintage TV theme song that brings back memories of a whole show, for better or worse (Land of the Lost, Diff'rent Strokes, Sherwood Schwartz's big two), there are themes I remember much more vividly than, and even apart from, the shows they introduced, from Petticoat Junction to The Rockford Files to Pink Panther. What these free-floating themes evoke upon relistening, then, is not so much any particular character or fictional setting but the lived world of my 1970s childhood itself—a small cathode-ray TV glowing and blaring somewhere in the picture, yes, but also the shag carpeting, the wood paneling, the vinyl upholstery, the smell of a parent's coffee, the low hum of the fridge, the light of afternoon sun filtering through gauzy drapes into the dusty light of a low-slung ranch-style house, and with it all the uniquely fleeting illusion of all-is-well contentment allowing a small corner for me and my imagination to blossom like a spider plant from a macrame hanger.

Perhaps most evocative of all these half-remembered TV-theme-song madeleines is the butch exotica of Hoyt Curtin's Jonny Quest theme, with electric guitar coiling over taut tom-toms, rude trombone blasts slamming into walls of trumpets, clattering xylophone and wayward flute. I remember almost nothing about the show, except possibly the aggressively horizontal rush of much of its opening credit sequence, though I think the theme's relentless momentum is what seals that sense of motion in my memory. (And yes, I've tried to dip back into the show to jog any residual affection, let alone memory, and find it mostly dry as dust and, not to put too fine a point on it, racist.)

What seals the Quest theme as a favorite, even after all these years, is the way it stretches its thematic material—you can't really call its nervily repeated notes and tritone blurts a tune per se—to the breaking point and beyond, which gives it all a frayed edge. Indeed this fraying is hardly incidental: Curtin apparently wrote the trombone part as a sort of dare, making it essentially unplayable—you can hear it described in this documentary at about 1:25:10. The sweaty tension we can hear in it is real, then, even as we can also feel the shameless manipulation of upward modulation—E-minor! F-minor! F#m-minor! G-minor!—and, when all else fails, major-minor scare chords on blown-out trumpets.

If it feels a bit like a musician liberated, there may be some truth in that: Curtin was accustomed to being given on-the-nose expository lyrics from his bosses at Hanna-Barbera and fashioning them into sprightly, singalong-able, brass-fronted earworms, from The Flintstones to The Jetsons to Yogi Bear. By contrast, he once explainedJonny Quest "was instrumental, so I just winged an adventure theme." Winged and took flight, straight from the daydreams of my '70s childhood to the homebound longings of today.

Only in the U.S.A.

Not that anyone is asking me, but if I had to nominate the most patriotic song I know, it would unequivocally be Allan Sherman's "Harvey and Sheila," a novelty song about Jewish assimilation to the tune of "Hava Nagila."

I have pretty uncomplicated feelings about the husky-voiced parodist whose heyday came just before I was born: I think he's great. Indeed he's in that rare class of artists, along with Chaplin or Dr. Seuss or the Beatles, whose work I adored immediately as a kid and discovered new levels in as I've grown older, even as I've retained an unbroken link with the child who relished the rhyme of "scare ya" and "malaria."

Okay, so about those new levels: Probably in part because by the time I revisited this ironic ode to suburbia (which really ends up being a sneaky tribute to city life), I had become a fan of Percy Grainger's arrangement of "Country Gardens," but mostly because I was a grown man living in the limbo between suburb and city (i.e., Los Angeles), this song now unaccountably moves me by its final verse.
Likewise "Harvey and Sheila," which to my kid's ears sounded like little more than a play on acronyms—IBM, CPA, BBD&O, PBX, RCA, etc.—with an odd minor-key tune that sped up for some reason. At least two things have deepened my abiding affection for the song. One is Sherman's delirious commitment to the alphabet wordplay—the daughters of this couple are named Bea and Kay, of course, and the "swimming pool filled with H2O" gets me every time.

The other is its wry cultural wisdom—not just the sly joke that these one-time New Yorkers who "worked for JFK" as a young couple "switched to the GOP" after moving to West L.A., as he shrugs, over the live audience's knowing laughter, "That's the way things go." (Ain't it the truth.) It is also the whole premise of the song and its wrenching subtext, which eluded me entirely as a kid: While so much of Sherman's shtick was based on the juxtaposition of Jewish surnames, Yiddish slang, and Noo Yawk dialect into WASPy Mitch Miller tunes and forms ("Sarah Jackman, How's By You?," or the tongue-twisting patter of "Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max"), "Harvey and Sheila" does something like the reverse, repurposing a folk tune from the Pale of Settlement to tell an aspirational story of wholesome, bourgeois mid-century Americana.

Or is it entirely wholesome and aspirational? Is there not a faint, bittersweet tang to the final turn, in which we find that Harvey, the modest accountant who met his wife in a stuck elevator, is now a wealthy "VIP," and that "this could be/only in the U.S.A."? Is the song saying: On the one hand, look how far we've come—and on the other hand, look how far we've gone? I don't know. But this sounds to me like the only kind of qualified patriotism, grateful but guilty, I can endorse in my middle age. All that and a periodic table joke—is it any wonder this song positively slays this schmaltzy goy?

(Fun side note: For the wedding reception of a mixed marriage I was hired to lead music for, I was asked to prepare "Hava Nagila," and I based my chart on the Sherman arrangement. It turns out there are differences between his version and the way the folk tune is most often done. There may be a reason that was the only wedding bandleader gig I've got so far!)

The Private Canon: "Ovdoviala Lissitchkata"

This post is part of a series.
The provenance of the mid-1980s world music sensation Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares is somewhat sketchy—apparently a couple of Swiss musicologists began crossing the Iron Curtain to make recordings of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir beginning in the 1950s, leading to a labor-of-love compilation record released in 1975, later snapped up by a London label, and the rest is history. As the words "state," "television," and "choir" may suggest, these were hardly folk field recordings of the sort Bartók or Harry Smith undertook; instead what they captured, which was no less exotic to Western ears than Balkan shepherds' songs, was a sort of state-approved nationalist modernism, with arrangements of traditional Bulgarian music by composer Filip Kutev, which emphasized the music's native dissonances as much as its tunefulness. The results were arguably closer to Bartók's original concert music than to his folk transcriptions.

The most famous track from the first volume, "Pritouritze Planinata,", is uncharacteristic of the rest in that it doesn't feature the full women's chorus, and instead includes an orchestral accompaniment. And instead of highlighting the signature Bulgarian-chorus sound—voices in tight major-second harmony—"Pritouritze" is a case study in milking as much drama as possible from a single plaintive note, whether wrung out of soloist Stefka Sabotinova or the pan-flutish sounds of a Thracian kaval. Unsurprisingly, its lyrics tell a horrifying tale of a deadly mountain collapse, and answers the eternal question of who will mourn the loss of two young men's lives more, a lover or a mother (take a guess).

It was another uncharacteristic track with a deathly theme on Le Mystère's Vol. 2 that became my other favorite from these collections. "Ovdoviala Lissitchkata" translates roughly as "The vixen has been widowed" or "The fox has lost her cubs," and indeed its lyrics tell another sad tale of senseless grief. But here they fly by at a steady clip, rendered with intense concentration in close harmony among a small group of vocalists, trading off with a fierce accordion part. It's the only track on any of these collections that might be considered a bop, but it's not just the adrenaline-pumping tempo that works on me: It's also the not-so-subtle contrast between the hurtling minor-key fury of the accordion figure and the tamped-down major-key embrace of the vocals, as if a small group of women—or fox cubs—has huddled for warmth against an unforgiving blizzard. The chill wind gets the fatal last word, of course, but not before the amber glow of the vocals has warmed us too.

This Post Brought to You (Mostly) by AI

Contrary to what you may have read here, I don't only like, or like to write about, old music that managed to imprint on me in my ever-receding "formative" years. And though I am happily not a music critic by trade, and hence expected to keep up with the onslaught of all the latest developments in every genre, I do keep an ear trained fitfully on new releases. (I really like "Betty," for the record.) As I've mentioned previously, though I only seem to open up an aperture to new music every once in a while, I may be breaking that habit a bit lately, thanks in part to the pandemic lockdown and thanks in even larger part to the algorithms by which Big Tech is squeezing the last bit of life from the music business.

At least, that's how I found my way to a number of recent favorites. Via a Pandora station I created maybe a decade ago out of an impossibly eclectic mix of rock, pop, Americana, soundtrack music, et al., I've been led to at least three new faves I want to address here: to sleepy Atlanta chanteuse Faye Webster, to hardy folk trio Bowerbirds, and to sunny French globalist Jain; I'm pretty sure I was somehow exposed to the wonders of guitar goddess Madison Cunningham via a similar "you might like" playlist on Spotify (I have trouble keeping tracking, honestly). Another two I heard about via a music podcast and my own YouTube wanderings, respectively. Each of these artists could merit their own post, but here are six for the price of one.

1. Faye Webster is a what's-not-to-like kind of artist, a seemingly sweatless savant in the vein of Lyle Lovett or Tracy Thorn, with a whispery blur of a voice and strummy, recessive tunes that creep up on you—they mostly come off as smilingly sad-sack retro lounge-folk-soul ditties, many of them ladled liberally with pedal steel syrup. But if you really listen to the words, your grin may evaporate. Even the jokes are bleak: In the sweet-and-sour lament "Jonny," Webster sings,
I want to be happy
Find a man with an old name just like me
And get over how my dog is my best friend
And he doesn't even know what my name is
Or take this loping waltz, in which bemusement over small things not going your way—your favorite pitcher having to hang up his jersey, for instance—finds a perfect expression in the pang of an intermittent minor-key stab. And the singer's discontent grows from trivia to encompass economic injustice and finally end-of-life dementia:
I've seen my mother in pain
Begging for her mom to remember her name
I guess it doesn't work like that
It never really works like that

2. Bowerbirds are in a very familiar indie-folk vein, in the kind of studiedly stripped-down-yet-compositionally-ambitious vein of the Lisps, Fleet Foxes, or Iron & Wine, which are all recommendations in my book. What makes this Raleigh, N.C. trio stand out is lead singer Philip Moore, who is often a vocal dead ringer for the mannered baritone of Andrew Bird, whose music I love but which has, at least in recent years, lacked the rough-hewn, lo-fi campfire timbre that gives much of this latter-day folk its edge. So as much as I've grown to love Bowerbirds in their own right, I often feel like I'm hearing a great Andrew Bird side project, with an accordion in place of a fiddle. This song is worth checking out to hear the scope of their sound, but I am also drawn to this oddball video:
3. When I first heard the bouncy world pop of Jain, I confess that its accented English lyrics and Afrobeat pulse put me in mind of M.I.A. That impression has worn off as I've discovered the multivalent pleasures of her rock/pop sound. Like tUnE-yArDs's Merrill Garbus or Stewart Copeland, she's a white artist (in her case from the Occitan region of France) whose affinity for global sounds is attributable to being raised in Africa and/or the Middle East; in Jain's case it was Dubai and Congo-Brazzaville. Though I vastly prefer the sounds and songs on her first record, Zanaka, to her second, Souldier, I haven't yet heard a track of hers I don't at least like, and there are plenty I now love as much as anything in my catalogue. I find this bit of bright pop nonsense, for instance, absolutely irresistible:   
4. I probably should do a whole post on Madison Cunningham, and I have a feeling I will—this is an artist I will undoubtedly be following for a while, who, on the basis not only of her first few albums and EPs but also a series of indelible covers she's uploaded to YouTube, is a monster talent both as a writer and interpreter (and she's just 24!). At first her sound seemed to slot squarely in an Americana singer/songwriter vein, a la a latter-day Lucinda Williams or Maria McKee. And while she bears favorable comparison to those artists, the layers of her brilliance have only kept unfolding the more I listen: the unflashy but fascinating electric guitar parts on which her songs are built, from the bluesy "Trouble Found Me" to the contemplative yet gritty "Beauty Into Clichés"; the mature songcraft, both harmonically and lyrically, on songs like "Last Boat to Freedom" or "L.A. (Looking Alive)," which put her in the illustrious realms of Joni Mitchell and Loudon Wainwright III, respectively; and of course the powerful, soulful voice she seldom pushes, instead rising in her upper reaches into a gorgeously expressive head voice that bears the clear influence of Jeff Buckley.

It's very hard to pick one song by her. Click on any of the links above, or enjoy the single from her latest album, Who Are You Now, "Pin It Down."
And though she's not the main author of the following—that would be Audrey Assad—the following gives an indication of Cunningham's power as an interpreter. It's also a window into her previous life as a Christian artist; she grew up singing and playing guitar at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., and her excellent first record, Authenticity, is a straight-up Christian record, and contains many essential Cunningham cuts. (This background is one reason among many I relished her recent cover of a song by fellow former-Christian-artist-if-not-former-Christian Sam Phillips.)
5. I first heard the next artist earlier this year when the hosts of WBEZ's Sound Opinions, Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot, had a Minneapolis DJ, Jade, on their show to recommend music. She recommended Dua Saleh, a Twin Cities pop/rap artist who is Sudanese and transgender, and whose jams are disarmingly tuneful and delivered with a raspy sneer. Though the song Jade brought was "Pretty Kitten," my favorite of theirs is this insinuating come-on.

6. The last band on this list I stumbled on thanks to this blog. While researching Brel's "Sur la place," I noticed there was a cover by a group calld Birds on a Wire—and then their name popped up again on YouTube when I was looking into the history of "Tonada de Luna Llena" for a recent post. Clearly this is a band with similar tastes! Indeed this French trio's eclectic mix of classical, folk, and pop is so up my alley they could have been invented in a lab by AI to match my tastes. And while I'm as unnerved as the next guy by the possibilities of technologized and monetized consumer surveillance, the tech that led me to all these artists is a matrix I'm grateful to be plugged into.

Jarring Juxtapositions & Radio Revelations

Music is among other things a physiological phenomenon, so it should not be surprising how vivid the memories it can imprint on us can be. I've written before about the transfixing moment I first heard R.E.M. on a jankity little boom box in my bedroom. Similarly, I can well remember more or less exactly where I was when I had what I think of as a series of moments of discovery-by-way-of-juxtaposition—Reese's-peanut-butter-cup moments when one musical flavor mixed with another in such an unexpected way that I initially thought something else was playing along with what I was hearing, or there was something wrong with the appliance I was listening on, but which, once I was properly reoriented, ended up introducing me to sound worlds I hadn't imagined existed.

In three out of four of the cases that come to mind, a radio was the conduit (how bittersweet, now, to think how rare it is that a radio of any kind is ever on anywhere in my vicinity). I remember I was driving home from L.A.'s Universal City late on a weekend night when the reception near the mountains got sketchy and I could swear I was hearing two separate pieces in the space between two stations, one on the classical KUSC and whatever was next to it: I heard a big old-time Broadway chorus belting out a number while an orchestra pounded out what sounded like a Prokofiev battle scene. As the reception got clearer and I realized that this was somehow all one song, my excitement only grew, and it has scarcely dimmed since then: This was "In Dahomey," a satirical number from the original Show Boat. Before I say more you need to hear what I mean:

There's an excellent reason why this isn't included in revivals of this classic 1924 musical, which most point to as the first exemplar of what we now think of as the American musical drama. And it's not just because it doesn't really advance the plot, though it certainly hits some of the Kern/Hammerstein musical's themes about the performance of race and showbiz artifice. In a nutshell, the song is a triptych, beginning with an "exhibit" at the World's Fair of ostensible Africans got up in "savage" garb—this is the music I thought was Russian, but is instead meant to be a kind of forbidding atavistic jungle music, with racist nonsense lyrics like "Dyunga hungy ung gunga." The next bit has the white patrons of the exhibit freaking out and fleeing ("Though I'm not fearful/I'll not be a spearful"), followed by the Black actors playing the Africans breathing a sigh of relief, shedding their ridiculous costumes, and singing the praises of their true home: the Lower East Side.
In Dahomey
Let the Africans stay
In Dahomey
Gimme Avenue A
Back in old New York
Where yo' knife and fork
Gently sink into juicy little chops
what's made of pork!
We are wild folks
When de ballyhoos bawl
But we're mild folks
When we're back in de Kraal
'Cause our home
Our home ain't in Dahomey at all
The joke here is squarely on the panicking white folks (listen to the melodramatic flutter of their indignation), but to get to that punchline obviously requires a labored set-up of hugely questionable taste. In short, I don't ever need to see this number staged. But surely I can't be the only one who finds the song's marriage of show-boat-banjo exuberance to minor-key primitivism exhilarating. (This song surely deserves its own niche in my Private Canon.)

Another road revelation: I was driving on the 5—I remember it was from Orange County back to L.A.—and a Tom Waits cassette had either jammed or simply ended and popped out of the car's tape deck, and without a break I heard, at the same volume, a gravelly voice howl "Danger!" at me. My initial thought: Wait, what Waits song is this? In fact it was the radio playing a track by New Orleans-based rapper Mystikal:

I was knocked out by his flow, but also by what seemed to me the inspired and (as far as I knew) rare idea of using a James Brown/Little Richard-style blues holler in hip-hop. I liked it enough that I went out bought his album Let's Get Ready, which also featured the hit "Shake Ya Ass." Honestly, nothing else on that record hit me as hard as this initial impression, and I didn't keep up with Mystikal's work (which in recent years has all but dried up, due to some arrests for assault). But I had a moment with this music that's worth honoring here.

The next radio revelation came at home, again courtesy of KUSC. One night I turned it on and came in on the middle of an orchestra-and-piano piece that had a nice chop and sweep to it; it was in the vein of 20th-century dissonant-but-not-atonal music I often gravitate to. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard a crazy whistling-siren sound I thought for a moment couldn't be coming from the same speaker (was it a neighbor's tea kettle? a sci-fi film on a nearby TV?). No, it was the ondes martenot, a theremin-like electronic organ, and it hovered over this swirling orchestra like an alien beaming an aria from a UFO hovering in mid-air. Hooked, I listened through to the end, not least to hear what I'd been listening to: It was Messiaen's vast Turangalîla-Symphonie. (I'm pretty sure it was one of the "Chant d'amour" movements, i.e., the second or fourth movement of the symphony's 10, that was playing when I tuned in, but I can't be sure; it is also possible that it was the 8th movement, excerpted below, in which the entrance of the ondes martenot is genuinely startling and full-voiced.) Like Ives's Fourth Symphony or Shostakovich's 7th, or even Carmina Burana or Le Sacre du Printemps, this is now a 20th-century monument to me.

The last example, and in many ways the dearest and subtlest, came via an iPod, with a track I owned but obviously hadn't paid close attention to. I was walking on Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg maybe a dozen years ago, around dusk if I recall correctly, and an angelic falsetto voice began singing a folklike melody in oddly accented Spanish over a classical-sounding woodwind ostinato in a gentle but insistent triple meter. So far so hypnotizing...and then, about a minute into the track, I thought I must have stepped into earshot of someone else's speakers, as a palmas-like hand-clap beat seemed to collide with the art song. But I soon realized, with mounting joy, that it was all the same song: Caetano Veloso's exquisite cover of Venezuelan singer/songwriter Simón Diaz's "Tonada de Luna llena," or "full moon song." There were more sonic surprises in store—some intermittent rattlestick buzz that starts around 1:43, a completely a cappella conclusion at 2:58, with just a final minor-key chord as a period for this gorgeous run-on sentence. This is one of those tracks I played over and over because I couldn't quite believe what I'd heard, but the more I heard the more I believed.
I've only recently learned more about the song, which is rooted in a tradition of Spanish folk songs, tonadas, which Diaz took it upon himself to revive/preserve in the 1970s. The lyrics seem to paint a dramatic allegory about a man who killing a heron by the light of the full moon and (as far I can tell) thereby committing a deeper sin against someone he loves (which he then tries in vain to wash away). Veloso, who is Brazilian, doesn't typically sing in Spanish, making this song even more of an outlier. I could hardly have known all this as I strolled in rapt awe through the Brooklyn twilight. But music communicates on many more levels than the literal, and who's to say it wasn't somehow conveying some or all this to me on a certain wavelength? Or that each of these musical coincidences weren't somehow synchronistic, arrows meant to point me in new directions, if I could make myself available to them? Count me a believer.

(Speaking of "Tonada," here's a beautiful live a cappella version by Veloso, an intense rendition by Natalia Lafourcade and Gustavo Guerrero, and a lovely, classical-sounding version by Birds on a Wire, which starts to jam about halfway through.)