Thursday, January 31, 2013

Air That Ain't Been Breathed Before

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album(s) replay: Johnny Cash, Greatest Hits, Vols. 1-2. Many of the recording artists I revere didn't make great records, or at least not album-length statements that hold together as works unto themselves, and so best-of collections have often been my introduction. They're how I came to know and love everyone from Peggy Lee to Hank Williams, from Spike Jones to Sly Stone. Again, Aron's Records' used bins are where I stumbled on these mixed-bag Cash compilations, actually in reverse order, which I don't recommend if you're looking for the top-drawer material--apart from "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down," Vol. 2 is heavy on novelties and/or covers, while Vol. 1, though not without its shtick and kitsch, contains several pillars of the catalogue ("Jackson," "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire").

Of course, even petty Cash has its value, and what comes through even the lesser material is the man's large, earnest, unfakeable presence. Post-Rick Rubin, we're used to hearing his voice as a stately, wizened rasp, but on the early records its sound is rich, full, almost embarrassingly orotund. We're also used to hearing stark guitar accompaniment as his ideal backdrop, but that sound can often pale next to the vintage Cash-Carter pop-abilly assault, mariachi brass and backup singers and all.

And while his best songs are strong and square as monuments--though admittedly some are closer in scale to cigar-store Indians than to, say, the Lincoln Memorial--mid- to late '60s Cash didn't yet have the oracular gravitas he later acquired (earned, to be fair). I'm glad, in a way, that the first thing I heard him do was to barely sight-read through Shel Silverstein's bumptious "A Boy Named Sue." To hear him laugh and lust and sweat and strain is to realize that the vaunted Man in Black was first and foremost just a man

Chris Wells and, did you see this?
Rob Weinert-Kendt Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps...but this is an exception.
David Tobocman He is the one revered artist I never got. His voice sounds like Tennessee Ernie Ford to me and he has no pocket (see I've Been Everywhere). Plus there's all those kitsch songs. Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire, etc. Those low notes sound gimmicky to me, not soulful. Sorry to spoil the party : (
Rob Weinert-Kendt @David, if you're lumping the desperate cry of "Ring of Fire" with his kitsch, then we'll just have to agree to disagree. (And can you really dismiss the guy who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues"?) He may be overrated, particularly by latter-day fans, but if I'm paying tribute to formative artists, I have to give due props:
Adam Liston (from a latter-day fan) Too much of the music I really like is derivative of Johnny Cash not to give him his due; I could say the same thing for Dylan as well.
David Tobocman Never even noticed the lyric to Ring of Fire being sincere, the faux-Mariachi kitsch of the music is so prominent. Seriously, this is not a novelty song? Always thought it was. Also never understood Folsom Prison Blues to be any more sincere than anything by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Maybe I'm not giving Tennessee his due either.
Jason Benjamin Totally agree with David's comment. I like Cash's song selections and swagger, but the man was tone deaf. 1-2 songs are all I can take in one listening. "Cigar-store Indians" nails it.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @David, I guess you have to hear him sing it *at* Folsom Prison.
David Tobocman I'm gonna listen to some Cash today as penance for crashing the thread. I'll keep an ear open.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @David, you're not crashing anything. Dissent is welcome and nothing is sacred, not even sacred music.
David Tobocman Nope. Didn't take. I tried.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Next, let's fight about Leonard Cohen, another essential but overrated bass/baritone with a passing relationship to pitch.
David Tobocman Now you're talking. And Rob, your song is better than the source material, if you ask me.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks, David...but that song literally wouldn't have been written, nor would I have thought it worth learning to pluck the bass notes on my Martin that distinctive country way, without the Cash incentive.
David Tobocman I'm not arguing. I'm just saying I never "got" this artist. He's about the only major major American artist I never really understood the value of beyond, as it's been put in this thread, as a cigar store indian. Kitsch value, but I'm consistently unmoved by kitsch. Don't particularly like Warhol either, for instance.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lost in My Labyrinth

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw. This was rough going, I'll admit. In his nerve-shredding adaptation of Henry James' consummate paranoid thriller, Britten didn't skimp on the dissonance or discomfort. Where James was subtle, even maddeningly indeterminate about the horrors afflicting this haunted house--an approach that naturally only tightens their grip on our imagination--Britten was frighteningly, disturbingly explicit. I'm not just talking about the blanks filled in by Myfanwy Piper's libretto, in which we see and hear the spectral molester Peter Quint quite clearly and hear unambiguously that he "made free with" the children and the previous governess. It's chiefly Britten's music that unsettles, with its queasy alternation between nauseated terror and feverish excitement; as with Peter Grimes, the subject of man-boy violation stirs his music to depths and heights it seldom reaches otherwise (for reasons that are as tragic and terrible as you can imagine).

But that intense engagement with the material is one reason I'd call this Britten's masterpiece, harsh edges and thoroughgoing perversity and all. The disorienting polytonality underpinning the chiming intervals of the main theme makes the whole thing feel a bit seasick, and even the score's bright major-key moments have a disquieting, jittery gait to them. Oddly or appropriately enough, this persistent skew is what makes the whole thing hang together. I saw a few Britten operas decades ago in L.A. (Midsummer and Albert Herring) but missed this one; the New York City Opera rendition is coming to BAM in a few weeks, and I'm a little scared to see it, frankly, not because I don't think it will live up to the recording's aural assault but because I fear that it will.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Seven Layers of Time

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Cibo Matto, Stereo Type A. One measure of a record's impact on me is whether it drives me to my instruments to try to learn its tunes; that was certainly the case with Rufus Wainwright's first two records, and with more than a few of Elvis Costello's. And it was definitely true of this 1999 classic from this short-lived New York duo, which is leaps and bounds better than their diverting but slightly shticky debut Viva La Woman! Here the thick-accented vocals/raps, and the lyrical preoccupation with food and clothes, are embedded in a richly embroided, endlessly tuneful popscape that put me in mind of Pet Sounds or the Beatles (the presence of Sean Lennon as a sideman/co-writer is not irrelevant here, though the only truly Beatle-esque song is the great bonus track "Backseat"). The harmony writing and genre-hopping songcraft also put me in mind, just a little, of Difford & Tilbrook, though I know of no Squeeze song that would dare to embellish Prince-style funk with crunching metal guitar and a trombone solo ("Lint of Love").

The album's nods to bossa nova, though, are what thread it all together somehow--indeed, many of the songs here have that chromatic, bassline-driven, extended-chord feeling that characterizes a lot of Brazilian music. I'd listened to plenty of Jobim and studied some jazz theory, but it took these catchy, offbeat songs by two Japanese expats to get me curious enough about it to really look under the hood and figure it out. The experience of charting some of these songs (particularly the one linked above) led me directly to write my own bossa knockoff, "Quiet Girl."

But I value the wild, warm, capacious Stereo Type A for more than just the inspiration it awoke in me. It's a great, great pop record--great enough, I guess, to make up for the fact that it was also, sadly, Cibo Matto's last.

Brent Hinkley Another of my faves
Chris Wells LOVE this album.
Tom Penketh LOVE Cibo Matto. They seemed to just disappear one day. Thanks for reminding me about them. Wonder if they are on Spotify...
Bradford Jones But it's moldy, mom, isn't it? (yeah, I'm a viva La Woman guy.)
Mark Watkins I don't think it was financially successful. Honda went on to romantic and/or music related relationships with Sean and/or Yoko. Viva La Woman is catchier and more idiosyncratic to me, but there's a million opinions in the big city
Rob Weinert-Kendt Look, I love VIVA LA WOMAN, but to my ears it compares to the genius of STEREO TYPE A like A HARD DAY'S NIGHT to SGT PEPPER'S.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jingle Bloody Jangle

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: The Pogues, Red Roses for Me. The volume, tempo, and attitude are certainly in the neighborhood of punk, but I'd forgotten how otherwise traditional the trappings of the Pogues' sound were, especially on this rowdy 1984 debut. If my ears are not mistaken, the persistent thrum on the bottom end comes from the bodhran (though there's an electric bass in there, too), and the lead parts are all taken by pennywhistle, banjo, and above all Jamie Fearnley's singing accordion. And the sheer joy unleashed by marrying major-key Irish folk to hard-driving rock intensity is still palpable after all these years, even if it's almost too much of a good thing; one can almost get a contact drunk from this record's relentless odes to drinking, puking, fighting, poverty, and rough weather.

Indeed, maybe punk is the wrong reference point; there's something about the sweary, swaggering, prideful malevolence of Shane McGowan's lyrics and vocal phrasing that almost puts me in mind of gangsta rap. And like the best of that genre, it's not just mean, it's so mean it's often funny, and fun; it's hard to listen to the Grand Guignol romp "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go," for instance, without thinking a bit of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. And I'm still grateful for the lesson of "Greenland Whale Fisheries," a song I knew from Peter, Paul, and Mary's rendition; in theirs a whaling captain regrets the loss of his men more than the loss of a whale, while in the Pogues, the captain's grief is coldly reversed. As with the many versions of the "Gallows Pole" will-no-one-save-me ballad, I'm not sure which of these is the most authentic. But for my money the Pogues make a convincing case, here and elsewhere, that the folk tradition is more about grit and greed and villainy than about the sad, pure, simple days of yore.

These London-Irish louts went on to make two arguably better records (Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God), but as an introduction to their exuberant Cheiftains-on-crack shtick, this Satanic seisun is hard to beat.

Kerry Reid I've been on a Pogues kick lately.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saturn V

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: John Adams, Harmonielehre. I was already a fan of his opera Nixon in China, which I had the good fortune to see at L.A. Opera in 1990, when I stumbled upon Adams' breakthrough work from 1985 in a used bin at Aron's Records. The jolting opening--35 stomping, arrythmic E-minor chords--is justly famous, as head-banging a throwdown as Le Sacre's "Danses des adolescentes." And in a sense, the entire rest of the piece, all three movements of it, is a kind of reckoning with the energy unleashed in those first 20 seconds or so, the swirling particulate cloud that follows an explosion, or the cosmic carousel following the Big Bang; and somehow Adams' floating sound-storm manages to crackle and swell with enough density and intensity, and enough harmonic drama, to stay in the air for 40 minutes.

Reportedly his inspiration was a dream about an oil tanker rising from the San Francisco Bay and taking off like a Saturn V rocket, and indeed there is a kind of pictorially vivid urgency to the work. It's there not only in the giant, honking sonorities and twinkling, chiming orchestral accents but particularly in its obsessive, irregular meters, which convey and foreshadow the surging moods and passions that keep breaking to the surface of the sound. This restless, unpredictable pulse is a signature tic of Adams' that has always made him seem closer in temperament to the Romantic composers than to the Zen detachment of his so-called "minimalist" peers.

If it's partly true that Adams' harmonies are throwbacks, at least by the seriously skewed lights of late-20th-century atonal/serialist orthodoxy, his compositional methods and form seem entirely of his era, even forward-looking. This is tonal music, certainly, but there aren't tunes here, really, or easy-to-grasp organizing shapes; it's as if Adams is using vernacular English, recognizable grammar, to render a huge, mysterious, non-narrative poem. Even after several listens, Harmonielehre still sounds to me as vast and curious and compelling as the night sky, soaring rockets or no.

Katie Barry Ishibashi I'm liking these random recommendations. Keep em coming!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Smell the Grass in the Meadow

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Paul and Linda McCartney, Ram. Is this what drives some people crazy about Paul McCartney--that even when he makes a record as Brian Wilson-level nutty as this, he still sounds unperturbed, dapper, cheerily tuneful, as if he were still singing about yesterday and another girl rather than, as he does here, three-legged dogs, his wife's hair, smelly feet, butter and grass and ketchup? That while John Lennon was off wrestling with his and the world's demons, and George Harrison was busy crafting the best of the ex-Beatle solo albums, Macca was playing sheep farmer with a ukulele and trying to turn his wife into a passable musician?

Well, let the haters hate, but I've spun this record many more times than Plastic Ono Band or All Things Must Pass. Maybe it's the lively, bittersweet folk/rock sound, with a fair amount of fuzz bass and Rhodes/Wurlitzer vibrato and country/blues vocal inflection, as well as some Beach Boys harmonies that make the Brian Wilson analogy all the more apt. With the exception of the authentically unhinged "Monkberry Moon Delight," these are by and large thoroughly companionable tunes, equivalents in song form of warm woollen mittens and hot soup on a cold day.

They're also, to my ears at least, clear antecedents for the eccentric but hooky high-strung folk blues of Lindsey Buckingham. Indeed, much as I like some of his later Wings records, I somewhat prefer this outlying, bare-bones, finding-his-own-sound augmented-solo approach. This really feels like a record he and Linda made for no one else but themselves, and God bless their addled bucolic souls for it.

John Eberhardt 1) Take it back. 2) Please. This was the beginning of his decent into middle-of-the-road pop, not the depth of unleashed content that was All Things Must Pass. 3) "Dapper?"
Linda Buchwald I'm glad you appreciate Ram, one of Paul's best solo albums, if not the best. Also, John and George could write songs just as silly.
Cinco Paul I love this album. To me it has nothing to do with being middle-of-the-road; in fact, I'd call it the first indie pop album. Its influence is huge. It was unappreciated when it first came out, but I think it's certainly risen in status since then. "Too Many People," "Back Seat of My Car," "Dear Boy"--these are great songs, expertly performed.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @John: If Macca's second post-Beatles effort is the beginning of the end for him, what are BAND ON THE RUN and VENUS AND MARS? I don't think he hit bottom till the 1980s (and he made one more great album since then, CHAOS AND CREATION). I think I acknowledge here that ALL THINGS is on another plane; it's just not as close to my heart. And really, my point about RAM, whether you love it or hate it, is that it's not middle-of-the-road at all; it's ornery and goofy and weird, and it doesn't have the gloss of the Wings era. In short, whatever flaws RAM has, and it most definitely has them, they're not the result of it being too pandering or pop.
 John Eberhardt I will give you that it may be his most cohesive work within the Paul cannon both overall & as far as full, individual songs go (by '73, he was the primarily the master of the medley - such as "Band on the Run"). I did say that it was a decent from here - which would mean it would be a decline from a high point in the catalog. As a whole body of work, my biggest issue with Paul's work has been his perfectionism - that he overproduces. For me, McCartney stands out as a better album, as it is both raw & still had somewhere to go afterwards. That said, I hold to my initial criticism of the word "dapper."
Jason Mandell Well said.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Modéré - très franc

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Ravel: Complete Music for Solo Piano (Abbey Simon). I've always revered the deceptively gentle revolution represented by Debussy, who arguably did more to expand the possibilities of Western harmony than any single composer of his time. But it's his tiny, quicksilver contemporary Ravel whose music I love. The clarity and concision of his writing gives his work real snap, sinew, and sweep, and it all feels purposeful, forward-moving; where Debussy's music can float, teasingly, in a kind of multichord/no-chord ether where it seems it wouldn't matter if he added or subtracted a note here or there, I always feel like every note in Ravel's chords, no matter how clustery and diffuse their effect, is there for a reason, is earning its keep, is a jewel meticulously cut and set there with care.

As with jewels, of course, there can be a cool, unyielding hardness to this music, and particularly so in his crystalline, percussive writing for piano; I don't recommend this music as a soundtrack to sub-freezing weather, as it was for me on this particular spin. And I'll confess that the appeal of the suites "Gaspard de la Nuit" and "Miroirs" continues to elude me; they're like textural etudes, harmonic laboratories, all musical grammar with scant musical content.

But most of this music is gospel to me, and the best of the lot is saved for nearly last: the swelling, surging "Sonatine" and the exquisitely trickling "Jeux d'eau," as perfect a case of programmatic music as has ever been made (yes, it really does sound like a play of water). Even the pieces I'm less keen on have the Ravel signature, the thing that endears me to him as my second favorite composer, after Weill: his wrenching harmonic syntax, to my ears as distinctive as the phrasing of a vocalist, in which each tiny change of chord and color registers unmistakeably, transparently, piercingly, and serves to push the music forward. True, I'm more warmed by his writing for strings and orchestra, and his L'enfant et les sortilèges is my favorite opera not by Mozart. But heard through the bright, clear prism of the piano, Ravel's harmony is a bracing, reorienting antidote for the lazy, mushy musical patterns that too often deaden our ears.

David Tobocman Insightful as hell, Rob. Nice chops. My favorite is Le Tombeau de Couperin which is an alternately beautiful and wry tribute to his French Baroque musical ancestor. Listen to Forlane for a nice laugh.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks, David. Yeah, I didn't talk about Ravel's wit, which for me is inseparable from his music's beauty. With few exceptions, I'm always as refreshed and amused as I am moved by Ravel. Do you know "Danse grotesque de Dorcon" from DAPHNIS ET CHLOE? And the single most affecting piece he ever wrote, to my mind, is this, from L'ENFANT, in which the shepherds and shepherdess from a child's wallpaper march away with sad dignity because the child has torn the wallpaper in a tantrum:

Suspend This (Updated)

This post has been amended to correct an error.*
Finally caught the Broadway folk phenom Once last night, and I liked it, but what impressed me most was the endearing fragility and directness of its sound; there are some well-chosen reverb effects on some of the vocals, a single moment of dance-club beats piped in, and some slight processing on the fiddle sound (an inevitable byproduct of miking them). Other than that, it doesn't sound much different from what you'd expect from a bunch of guitars and other assorted stringed instruments strumming and sawing away in a big theater. The introduction of a drum kit for precisely one song also sounds hearteningly in proportion; the sounds we hear are transparent, visible in a way even most shows with onstage bands don't quite approach. Even when it's jamming hard, it remains a refreshingly small, quiet show.

So how does it fill up the space with emotion? It's not just the big voices of Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti, and the chorus. What I noticed, even more strongly than when I saw the movie, is the way composers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova milk the suspensions--i.e., melody notes that are pointedly not part of the chord beneath them, in a dissonance that snags at our ear, tugs at our heart, and makes us yearn for the resolution. It's a great old musical trick, and you don't need a ton of music theory to hear what I mean. Listen to the word "time" (1:48) and "now" (2:03) and tell me that yearning sound isn't the key to whatever emotional freight the song carries (and by extension, the key to the show's emotional impact):

Crucially, it's a doubled suspension, with Kazee and Milioti hitting a B-natural and a G, respectively, over an F chord, before resolving to an A and an F.

And what's another big moment in the score, when a song positively bowls us over? (This, by the way, is a much bigger achievement than it's given credit for; in how many backstager musicals are we asked to believe that the song/performance of our lead character is stop-the-traffic amazing? The songs that are meant to do that in Once deliver.) I'd say it's the aching 5/4 jam "When Your Mind's Made Up." The burning dissonance that drives the song, on the word "mind" (:02 and :13), happens to be another B-natural, this time over an A minor chord, a particularly hard-edged suspension that beautifully illustrates and feeds the song's roiling frustration:

Hansard and Irglova didn't invent this evocative trick, of course, and while I'm reluctant to make too many claims for the power of suspensions in pop melodies, they are very often what gives a hook its sharp edge, drawing us into harmonic suspense as we wait for the resolution. One of the best examples that springs to mind is the following standard*, with the suspension that hooks the ear on the word "smile" (and later on the first syllable of "favorite"):
Paul McCartney, for one, is an inveterate suspender. I'd argue that the single note that most draws us into "Hey Jude" is the one on "song" (at :08), which is an F over a C7 chord:

It's not exactly the same effect, but the main melody of "Yesterday" is built on a series of suspensions that inexorably drive it forward, thus (suspended notes highlighted):
All my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
You probably don't need to hear it, but just to jog your memory:

Not all suspensions are quite so exalted; the chorus of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" is based on one. But lest this seem like only a contemporary pop tic, the musical Once is in good company, musical-theater-wise. What notes provide the biggest surge of feeling in the song below? I'd say the suspensions on the syllable "morning" (:30) and later "feeling" (:39) (the latter being same sweet suspension used so memorably in "Falling Slowly"):
This is part of what people mean when they talk about the dramatic character/potential of music. Songwriting, even for the theater, is not primarily about the words.
*This post initially claimed that the song "Harbor Lights" epitomized a suspension; my ears failed me; it does not.
Cross-posted on The Wicked Stage.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Skin of a Robot

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Beck, Mutations. Both on his own and with the Dust Bros., Beck had already proven himself a great record-maker, a true genius of cut-up found sound and white-nerd funk, but it was this extraordinary 1998 album that, for me, marked his true debut as a classic American songwriter. The songs feel hand-crafted and nakedly sincere, even as the lyrics sift matter-of-factly through tropes of decay, corrosion, anomie, and assorted dystopia. Yes, there's an unmistakeable ghost of Dylan electricity about the whole exercise, but maybe one of the things I love most about this live-sounding record is that, almost as if to face those comparisons head-on and disarm them, Beck and producer Nigel Godrich seem to have consciously nodded in the direction of Bobby's mid-'60s wild mercury sound (the harmonica, a minor-key piano in the neighborhood of "Thin Man," etc.).

But there's so much more to the record than knockoff and throwback: There's his most substantial and moving Eastern-drone song, "Nobody's Fault," the frisky bossa of "Tropicalia," and above all the sweet sway of 3/4 and 6/8, in which almost half the songs here are set. That exotic-for-pop time signature, plus the beautiful guitar noodling on "Sing It Again," has often put me in mind of another essential American album: Willie Nelson's plucky Redheaded Stranger. Heady company, but that's exactly the shelf on which Beck at his best belongs.

Tom Salamon I am loving these posts. As soon as you post about an album that I'm not familiar with I'll listen right away - so far everything you've chosen falls right into my territory of important albums (although Sea Change is his masterpiece). Just so you know lines like "...ghost of Dylan electricity") are not lost on me. Great work.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks, Tom! Gotta admit I'm a SEA CHANGE skeptic; I kind of agree with a friend who compares it (not favorably) to Dan Fogelberg. But if you say so maybe I'll have to give it another chance.
Tom Salamon YOU HAVE NO SOUL. It's his Blood On The Tracks. One of the top three breakup albums of all time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

You Want Something Corny? You Got It

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: The Police, Regatta de Blanc. Somehow I managed to misremember the ascent of this great pop trio as a slow, R.E.M.-like climb from the fringe to the mainstream, but on a revisit to my favorite of their records, I was reminded of the obvious--that in fact this trans-Atlantic concern sounded like a supergroup from the start, producing five fantastically accomplished, thoroughly accessible records in the space of five years, like the Beatles on a tighter schedule.

I'd forgotten a few things about this, their second release: the weird chutzpah of Sting's world-music accent, which ebbs and flows roughly in proportion to how much like "reggae" a given song sounds (it's most egregious on "Bed's Too Big Without You"); how awful-yet-still-somehow-catchy the bad songs are ("It's All Right for You" and "Contact"); how relatively pretension-free the record is, which is one factor that did change as Sting's reading list got more extensive.

And though I wouldn't count this as something I'd forgotten, I'm always freshly awed by Andy Summers' resourceful, entirely un-ordinary guitar arrangements; while the tight, restless rhythm section and Sting's razory tenor have always held the foreground of the Police's sound, what Summers does in accompaniment, assiduously avoiding guitar-hero grandstanding or cliche, seems always in danger of being overlooked. I particularly love the Bo-Diddley-meets-Johnny-Marr clatter of the song above, as well as the high pizzicato-plucky sound he does on the breaks (an effect he revisited memorably on "King of Pain").

If there's a slightly impersonal, hit-making feeling about the work, even at this early stage, it's almost entirely made up for by the vigor and rigor of the playing. This was a band so good that they could have made a great instrumental side project if they'd chosen to. Pop music isn't always played this well, and often doesn't need to be, but when it is, it's a case of joy piled on joy--almost too much of a good thing. It's no wonder they didn't stay together long.

Tracy Young great album, great band, and great review! So fun to read your astute observations RWK!
Sean Williams YES. Andy Summers was the weirdest guitar player, and not in the same way that Copeland was a bizarre drummer. I saw an interview where Copeland said he intentionally avoided hitting the downbeat as often as possible, and that's just being sort of obtuse. Summers was crafting these really strange harmonic and rhythmic splatters.
Sean Williams And thanks for this post, I haven't thought about it in a few years.
Jennifer Gordon Thomas And to any new Police listeners out there reading this, just remember to stop when Sting starts playing the Lute.
Tom Salamon My favorite Police album. For further listening, check out the 'Bed's Too Big Without You' on the live disc from this era. Astounding.
Carey Fosse Fun fact: they each had their own Echoplex tape unit to manipulate during the show.

Monday, January 21, 2013

We'll Get Wounded If We Stay

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Randy Newman, 12 Songs. This insinuating, Southern-fried suite from 1970 doesn't have the sweet sweep of Newman's astonishing debut, or the Gothic freak-show pathos of Good Old Boys, or the Olympian reach and range of Sail Away--in short, it's not the early-Newman masterpiece most likely to dazzle and delight an initiate into the Cult of Randy. At least, that's how it seemed when my friend Cinco Paul made his entire collection available for sampling; I glommed onto roughly a quarter of this dozen at the time, favoring the bigger gestures of the other records.

But once clued into Newman's unreliable-narrator shtick and acclimated to his old-school rhythms, this is now the record I return to with the most pleasure, I think because he's underplaying his hand--he's holding the ironies closer to the vest, and working on a smaller canvas, than in his more famous songs about God, race, and assorted American cities. The characterizations of misanthropes, stalkers, dupes, and losers here feel more open-ended, more matter-of-fact, less keyed to make a clever point or twist. As a result, the masks are that much more convincing. This really very often sounds like an honest-to-God counter-revolutionary record: the angry, disillusioned lament of a man who neither understands nor enjoys the liberated '60s. It really sounds like Newman's heart is in it, all of it--that he's found the parts of himself that resonate with these characters, as Jud Fry-ish and/or borderline sociopathic as they are.

It's also, perhaps not coincidentally, his most authentically bluesy record--the one that handily earns him that recent induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. There are real grooves here, particularly on a trio of chilling songs named for the women who are their subjects ("Suzanne," "Lucinda," "Rosemary"), and many of the songs sound more felt than shaped. The silly "Yellow Man" aside, he even outsources the racism (to a savvy Gordon/Revel cover, "Underneath the Harlem Moon"). The whole brilliant bad trip ends, appropriately enough, with a rambling but entirely on-point whimper of incomprehension, "Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues," which plays out the square-at-a-party comedy of "Mama Told Me Not To Come" to its logical extreme. We love you, indeed.

Cinco Paul I'll have to give it another listen--I've always placed it below Sail Away and Good Old Boys myself.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Happy Once and Then Twice

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Everything But The Girl, Idlewild. A fair amount of the records that made it into my collection a quarter century ago came via my college newspaper hookup; a much smaller number of those made it into frequent rotation, let alone my personal pantheon. This slick, circumspect album by a band I didn't follow much, either before or since, somehow wedged in there and stuck. A big bar to entry, now as then, is the deadly-tasteful late-'80s MOR production sound--the shallow snare, the noodling acoustic leads, the salad-bar sax, keyboard patches that were already cliches at the time. But either the songs are strong enough, or that framing is unobtrusive enough, that the '80s soft-pop sound has always gone down with me more as a balm than an irritant.

On this revisit, two elements jumped out at me and imprinted the album on me anew. The first is Tracey Thorn's yearning smudge of a voice, which shrinks to a disarmingly naked flutter at key emotional moments--a flaw most singers would probably fix or unlearn but which she turns into a bracing, soulful effect. The second is the unmistakable lyrical preoccupation of so many of the songs with children, family, home, aging, and midlife resignation, which must have sounded incredibly wise and grown-up to me at the tender age I first heard it, and which if anything makes these songs that much more devastating now that I'm past the age of these singers' earnest worries and equivocations. Songs like "Apron Strings" and the above (the only tune forefronting Ben Watt's voice) are openly should-we-or-shouldn't-we-have-kids songs, but it's easy to hear the entire album through the prism of that not-quite-young-anymore crossroads.

I don't think I'd noticed, for instance, the painfully wishful thinking of a song like "These Early Days," in which the singer admonishes a two-year-old to remember these good times because they won't last. This is either blissful naivete or intentional irony, but either way I find the premise unaccountably moving--especially given the lightly joshing but achingly vulnerable way Tracey sings it.

When we say songs "age well," we usually think we're referring to some kind of timeless quality or universality in their essence. I'm prepared to admit, after this subtly stirring replay, that we cherish songs over the years because, like old friends, they knew us when, and, no matter how old we get, they still have our number--even after our number's changed.

Justin Warner I don't know this album but "Amplified Heart" is a standard in my collection...

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Levant Plays Gershwin. I'm used to hearing Gershwin's concert works as fancy-dress jazz, and to implicitly condescend to them as such--or at least, this is how I was conditioned to hear them after I'd first fallen for them without reservation. This was crossover "pops" pabulum by a Broadway baby, some nice tunes spackled together with difficult-sounding piano cadenzas. But I was pleasantly surprised upon revisiting "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Concerto in F to hear chiefly their imaginative ambition and spiky integrity as 20th-century concert music in a vein I've since explored more fully. I'm talking about the questing jazz/folk hybrids of Ravel, Falla, Milhaud, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Copland, Bartok, Weill, Hindemith, Ives--music united by a kind of experimental populism, or a populist experimentalism, and aimed as much beyond the concert hall as at it.

For one, there is a lot more dissonance than I recall from casual listening, and it's not just cosmetic but deeply ingrained in the works' harmonic logic; if there's any grain of truth to some of the snobbery about this work, it is in the way sweet melodies sometimes do sound airlifted in, laid over the thorny harmonies like a tarp. This being Gershwin, though, those melodies are genuinely sweet, not synthetic, and the harmonies remain interesting; if he doesn't always reconcile the two convincingly, I can live with that.

Also, for the first time I heard Spain in some of the dashing melodies, modal scales, and step-wise chord progressions--or at least, the early 20th-century French version of Spain, a half-remembered/half-created sound world partly creditable to the half-Basque Ravel (and acknowledged and embraced by an actual Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, for what it's worth). I heard it clearly in the opening motif of "Rhapsody," in a good deal of the coolly glowering/towering Concerto, and even in the openly Francophile "An American in Paris." (A note on the recording: I grew up with a collection that included these three works, with a hot redhead on the cover, and that's accordingly the record I revisited; but if you go to Amazon, a new edition of "Levant Plays Gershwin" adds some other piano pieces but subtracts "Paris," which, to be fair, has no piano, and hence no Levant, in it at all.)

I don't mean to claim that dissonance + Spain = serious music, that these associations "prove" these works' pedigree. They have nothing to prove anymore, least of all to me. It's just nice with this revisit to situate them in a pantheon I've since formed, and which perhaps unconsciously was even formed around them, due to them. This is also partly true to history, since Ravel's great jazz-and-Spain piano concerti followed Gershwin's, not the other way around.
Cristofer Gross Thanks for this. Years ago I had a close friend who was old enough to have been a close friend of both George and Oscar. According to him, Levant was Gershwin's favorite pianist. (And my friend was a pianist himself, having – according to him – been the first to perform a solo-piano version of Rhapsody in Paris.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hammer and a Nail

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Los Lobos, Kiko. I don't know how they did it, but somehow, by going weird and gritty and spacey, by burrowing deep into soundscapes and song structures as disorienting and diverting as dreams, L.A.'s greatest band made one of their catchiest, most accessible records. Maybe it's because these idiosyncratic blues, folk, and soul sounds aren't so far afield, after all; they're like the buried saints, fossilized trees, ancestors' bones, and secret catacombs they found by digging deeper in their own haunted backyard.

Indeed, I'm not sure why, but horticultural/botanical analogies keep suggesting themselves to me: This record is like an unweeded garden that's gone beautifully to seed, full of kudzu and fennel and teeming with colorful insects; it's like a collection of exotic cacti dotting the back porch of a bungalow on a hill somewhere on the Eastside of L.A.; it's a dark, velvety, flowering plant growing by ultraviolet light in a cracked basement. You get the idea (or do you?).

Truth to tell, it goes on a bit longer than is ideal, with "Wicked Rain" and "Whiskey Train" being two superfluous-seeming tracks. But even the straightforward stuff here is bent somehow, while the bent stuff stands up as sturdy as folk music (which at its best is wrought from crooked old timber, we easily forget). Like Achtung Baby, Kiko is a mid-career high that both sums up and steps up the game of an essential band.

Jimb Fisher From that short period around 20 years ago where it seemed everyone was rediscovering the Chamberlain.
Chris Wells Wow, that's a ballsy statement, "LA's greatest band." I would have said it was X. I wonder who else you think is in the running?
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Chris: I thought of X, The Doors, Beach Boys, The Byrds, NWA, The Go-Gos, GnR, Jane's Addiction, Concrete Blonde, Love, Ozomatli, Rilo Kiley, Van Halen, the Turtles, War...I'd still stand by Los Lobos, not least because they've always sounded more like the L.A. I know and love.
Laurel Green One of my all time favorite albums.
Adam Liston Honestly, it would have taken much longer to discover Tom Waits without them--"Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films".
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Adam: That record's on my list, too.
Bradford Jones I think I discovered this album through their live performance on Letterman.
Marvin O'Gravel Balloon-Face Love this album! Thanks for reminding us about it.