Saturday, February 16, 2013

Stepping Off the Turntable

Having done this formative-album-replay almost daily since December 3 of last year, and having hit the nice round number of 60 records, and more importantly heading into a deadline iceberg that will take me under if I don't face it head-on, I'm taking a brief break. It's been a huge pleasure and a relief to take the iPod off shuffle, a hard habit to break but glad I did so, and even more than that it's been bracing and illuminating to revisit albums which helped form my taste and advance my thinking about music, as well as my doing about it. Looking back on just the list below, I feel I've formed, or reformed, strong new impressions--new memories that will be a joy to recollect going forward.

The albums I've replayed and reconsidered so far:

The Replacements Let It Be
Michelle Shocked Short Sharp Shocked
The Meat Puppets Up on the Sun
Simon & Garfunkel Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme
Violent Femmes
k.d. lang Shadowland
Elvis Costello King of America
Orff Carmina Burana
Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde
Yes Fragile
Vince Guaraldi A Charlie Brown Christmas
Suzanne Vega
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica")
Jimmy Webb The Animals' Christmas
R.E.M. Document
Rufus Wainwright
Maggie and Terre Roche Seductive Reasoning
U2 October
Janacek String Quartets 1 & 2 (the "Kruetzer Sonata" quartet and "Intimate Letters")
The Talking Heads Naked
Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) 
The Beatles Hey Jude
Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back
Thomas Dolby Aliens Ate My Buick
Bernard Herrmann Music From Alfred Hitchcock Thrillers
Felicity Lott A Schubert Recital
Fiddler on the Roof (film soundtrack) 
David Bowie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (film soundtrack)
Sam Phillips The Indescribable Wow
Elvis Presley The Sun Sessions
Dawn Upshaw The Girl With Orange Lips
Tom Waits Nighthawks at the Diner
Los Lobos Kiko
Levant Plays Gerswhin 
Everything But The Girl Idlewild 
Randy Newman 12 Songs
The Police Regatta de Blanc
Beck Mutations
Ravel: Complete Music for Solo Piano
Paul and Linda McCartney Ram
John Adams Harmonielehre
The Pogues Red Roses for Me
Cibo Matto Stereo Type A
Britten Turn of the Screw
Johnny Cash Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 and 2
Marcus Roberts Deep in the Shed
Opal Happy Nightmare Baby
Sondheim Pacific Overtures (original cast album)
Lone Justice
Serge Gainsbourg La Javanaise, Vol. 2, 1961-1963
Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Leonard Cohen)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
Peter, Paul and Mary
Velvet Underground and Nico
Doris Day and the Page Cavanaugh Trio, Vol. 2, 1952-53 
Tito Puente Tambó
Mozart, Symphony No. 40
The Who Quadrophenia
Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4
Squeeze East Side Story

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Broken Nose on a Sunny Day

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Squeeze, East Side Story. My God, the lyrics! I'd somehow forgotten how teeming with sights, sounds, smells, and slang this great, overstuffed pop collection is. After suffering through the anomic banalities of Quadrophenia's teen identity crisis a few days ago, to dip into this tangy mulligatawny of lipstick and nicotine, of pub crawlers and lovers and fighters in cramped kitchens and coldwater flats, was almost overwhelming, like a Mike Leigh film on speed.

I'd remembered the music fondly: the rockabilly grooves that so well suit Glenn Tillbrook's voice, the bright, nimble pop of "Picadilly" and "Mumbo Jumbo," which on this listen emerged as the twin hearts of the record--if not my favorites, the songs which, with run-on choruses that seem as long as the verses, most typify the record's joyous abundance--and even the slightly strained attempts at Beatles-style versatility (ragas, classical strings, country). But with the vibrant music married to the short story-worthy observations, wordplay, and conversational characterization of the lyrics, East Side Story is an embarrassment of riches.

Caveats: It's clearer than ever why Squeeze weren't big in the States; that cultural specificity raises the accessibility bar, but also neither of their voices--not just froggy Chris Difford but also suave Tillbrook--have the presence, the immediacy to really punch through and arrest a listener. It's understandable, in other words, that they brought in a ringer, Paul Carrack, to sing most of their one big white-soul hit, "Tempted." Still, is there any other song about lust and infidelity that begins with a line like "I bought some toothpaste"?

Dennis Kim-Prieto we saw them in philly with cheap trick a couple years ago. and yes, they played tempted, cool for cats, is that love, and all kinds of hits...
Chris Willman Love "East Side Story." But we are going to have to talk about "Quadrophenia"!
Ken Munch I remember vividly that "East Side Story" was the album that led Rolling Stone to dub Difford and Tillbrook "the new Lennon & McCartney."
Brent Hinkley Rob, did you ever listen to their first album? At that time they were called UK Squeeze. One of my favorite tunes, "Take Me I'm Yours". Then they became a little too sugary for me.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Brent, no, I don't know that one, I'll check it out. And I guess I like me some sugar.
Gary Kout Oh no, I feel a Sqeeze day coming on! Launching Spotify now. Brent, I'm so with you on Take Me I'm Yours. Hey, there's a live acoustic version of it. Nice!
Justin Warner One odd thing I've noticed about Squeeze, at least many of the singles: They use the two singers to double the melody line an octave apart. Especially the earlier songs. ("Take Me I'm Yours," "Goodbye Girl")

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Yon Mountain's Height

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4 (Leopold Stokowski, American Symphony Orchestra). Plenty of 20th-century composers put notes together in new and ear-cracking ways, but insurance salesman/Emersonian eccentric Charles Ives gave the world dissonance with a difference. There are a number of moments in this, his cantilevered, bipolar masterpiece, that actually sound out of tune, like Ives didn't work out all the clashing harmonies with some kind of serialist or atonal logic but just gleefully let them crash into each other with a kind of proto-Cagean randomness.

The ferocious second movement, which I either forgot or only just noticed this time around is called "Comedy, Allegretto," often sounds like three or four marching bands rolling around in the belly of a rocking ship, and the swirling final movement evokes an arctic strait crowded with passing icebergs and floes, each bearing a different section of the orchestra (music I'm pretty sure was in the mind of John Adams when he wrote Harmonielehre). Around those two jagged peaks Ives laid down some lush greenery: a mildly foreboding choral prologue and a hymn-like fugue as magisterially moving (in both senses) as any American orchestral music ever written.

That American-ness is an important part of what makes Ives Ives, not to mention indispensable: both his cacophony and his calm could only spring from the land that nurtured both Whitman and Dickinson, Melville and Twain, Quakers and Puritans, the radical Republicans of 1860 and the radical Republicans of 2010. It is broad-shouldered music of unearned but utterly infectious confidence, whose utter sincerity gives it a deep, unmistakeable soulfulness--even, or especially, when that soul is troubled, raging, at sea.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

All the High Roads

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: The Who, Quadrophenia. A lot harder to love than Tommy, which is one thing I used to admire about it, this double-LP concept album's searching inwardness and grit, what seemed to be its single-minded specificity and cold-eyed grandeur, made it seem more authentic or "true" than the spaced-out, messianic excesses of lovable but shaggy old Tommy. Revisiting this needlessly sprawling work again now, though, I feel almost none of what I once did for it; apart from the high watermark of "I've Had Enough" and the solid pump of "Five Fifteen," it was honestly hard to get all the way through this listen.

Problem is, I don't respond to the themes, in both senses of the word: neither the subject matter, the angsty, small-bore teen drama of clothes and clubs and fitting in, nor the largely uninviting, uninspired melodic motifs. In the case of the first, the specifics of the mod/rocker scene, or of our antihero Jimmy's journey through it, aren't vivid enough to make any images or turns of phrases stick, and Pete Townshend's attempts to generalize those specifics into something larger about identity, purpose, or a larger rebellion only make them sound more banal ("The real me"? "Is it in my head or in my heart"? Really?). Adolescence may be a fertile energy source for rock 'n' roll, but in itself it's not a great subject--particularly not for an album-length "concept."

And in the case of the musical themes, though Townshend has self-consciously woven them throughout, in studied classical form, he's just shuffling around dead weight; so many of the tunes here feel clenched, needly, a little tired (though "Sea and Sand" has a tenderness and an expanse that's uncharacteristic of most of the album). On the plus side, the band's playing is especially good, particularly John Entwistle's insistent bass. But the sound is ultimately cold and clinical, like The Who on autopilot, and those awful, almost ubiquitous synth sounds don't help.

Did I mention that "I've Had Enough" is a great song? It's a little three-act opera of resignation and fury unto itself. And "Five Fifteen" comes closer than anything on the record to converting hormonal horror into substantive drama. The rest is filler.

Matt North I know, I know...
Matt North I began reading Pete Townshend's autobio and had to stop. I knew if I read the whole thing my feelings about him and The Who would be lost. Odd when it feels like a hero's skills are demystified
Rob Weinert-Kendt True, though I did really enjoy these interviews (cause it's most about the music):,
Justin Warner I do like "5:15" although never got into the album. I've often wondered how many of the gazillion rockers, almost all adults, some middle aged, who write about adolescent angst actually feel moved by it, and how many are just defaulting to it. I've been shrugging at those kinds of themes since at least my mid twenties.
Joe McDade To me, the album is inseparable from the movie, and the movie is inseperable from how Valley Art on Mill Avenue used to screen it one weekend a year.
Chris Coffman with you

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Great G Minor

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G minor (Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra). Is this really Mozart? Here is a symphony content to seethe more than sing; that saws out its chords emphatically, even brutally; that doesn't shy away from heavy minor-key drama, and is prone to rush headlong into startling, dramatic gestures; that crowns the onward march of its churning strings with a gleam of winds and horns--in short, this sounds for nearly all of its four movements like vintage Beethoven. It's not until partway through the third movement, a minuet, that we hear something like the Mozart smile, the stately warmth and unapologetic sweetness; and the fourth movement puts a few neat frills on an otherwise earnest main theme.

Needless to say, there is none of the signature Beethovenian disorder and disruption, but the sound and fury here feels distinctly un-Mozartean. And to be clear, I love Mozart in his native voice, particularly his operas, which rank with Shakespeare's plays in my book as best-of-the-Western canon. But as if he weren't genius enough already, to hear Wolfgang near his short life's end so clearly lay the groundwork for his fiery successor is one of the more thrilling baton hand-offs in music, right up there next to Debussy and Ravel, or the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Thrilling Array of Savage, Passionate Rhythm*

Original Facebook post here.

Today's formative-album replay: Tito Puente, Tambó. This is some kind of dream record--I don't just mean that it's stunning, which it is, but that it seems like the kind of record you could only imagine existed. When, during a Latin music phase in the early '90s, I came across this 1960 collection of instrumentals not just dominated by Puente's extraordinary percussion section but shaped around it, by it, for it, it was a miracle akin to discovering that there actually was a record of Kurt Weill piano-vocal demos (Tryout) or of Ella covering Randy Newman.

There aren't songs here so much as there are compositions, built on thundering or sinuous grooves and layered poly-rhythms, with harmony not so much an afterthought--the contributions of brass and flutes and piano and bass, not to mention tuned percussion, are essential here--as occupying a different importance, less as an organizing principle than as another flavor, another color in the drum-led parade.

You may not think such a record could keep your interest, but this is a soundscape it's remarkably easy to get lost in, and the variety--from full-frontal assault to gentle beach breeze--is prodigious. There's another collection called Top Percussion that has some essential tracks but is only half as good overall. For me, Tambó is Tito's masterpiece; this record makes him sound like, if he hadn't spent his career as a top-notch bandleader and performer, he could have been the Astor Piazzolla of the mambo.

*This is a quote from the liner notes.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Let's Find a Cozy Spot

Original Facebook post here.

Today's formative-album replay: Doris Day and the Page Cavanaugh Trio, Vol. 2, 1952-53. One should never be glad for a car accident, but here's one exception: the crash that scotched young Doris Kappelhoff's ambitions to be a dancer and made her seek another outlet. I won't argue that in turning to singing she became one of the mid-20th-century's essential vocalists, but on a few intimate recordings--this one and a record with Andre Previn simply called Duet--she makes a pretty compelling case for herself as a first-rate standard-bearer. (My brief but memorable Doris Day phase, I'll note briefly, was thanks to the revelatory USC film professor Drew Casper.) There's just the slightest grain in her otherwise vanilla Midwestern voice, some melted butter on the white bread--enough to evoke, from a certain angle, the great Ella Fitzgerald. And the relatively sparse backup (though not always strictly a trio) keeps the sound earthbound, so that when she leans into the soaring big notes they're nicely silhouetted and framed, not slathered in syrupy strings.

Yes, she should probably be voted off Great American Songbook Island for singing "It's wonderful" rather than " 'S Wonderful," a faux pas more egregious than Bono's mangling of the chorus of "Helter Skelter," but I'm prepared to forgive that in return for her cozy, secure, unfussy renditions of a handful of other standards, as well as lively turns on a series of less-common gems ("Just You, Just Me," " 'Sposin'," "Light Your Lamp"). I have little to say about her better-known acting career, except to note that her roles in Love Me or Leave Me and Calamity Jane led to one great and one decent soundtrack album, respectively, and that though she was quite fine in her most important role, in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, that film also happened to give the world her cloying signature tune, "Que Sera Sera." I'd rather draw a curtain on that Doris Day, and take another spin with this sly songbird.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Make Love to the Scene

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: The Velvet Underground and Nico. I guess it says a lot about my taste that the "and Nico" part of this rangy landmark work is what I've always responded to most strongly. Indeed, if the cliche about this album is that only a few thousand people heard it originally but every one of them went out and started a band, the corollary truth would be that nearly every song here could have spawned a different genre. You could trace glam rock, the bluesier varieties of punk, art/noise, grunge, shoegaze, post-Dylan folk-rock, and more back to this single source.

And yet for all that, it hangs together as a document of a particular time and place; as Threepenny was to Weimar Germany, this record sounds like the definitive soundtrack for the preemptively cynical Factory scene, a dirty-fingernailed salute to the dangerous, defiantly decadent demimonde of late-'60s NYC--the seamy flip-side of Hair's flower power. This record has a palpable, throbbingly sensory quality to it, not quite a stench or a tang but something like that; much of it feels like it was recorded in a dank basement between alternating hits of smack and speed. Among its many sonic innovations--the lo-fi multitracking, the seemingly found percussion sounds, the keening fiddle and screeching feedback--the most striking on this listen was the chaotic guitar "solos," the wildly arrhythmic shredding that sounds like literal shredding, that bubble up intermittently until they boil over in the raucous finale, "European Son."

All that duly noted, it's the penultimate track, "I'll Be Your Mirror," that brings the record home for me. Nico's throaty, sphynx-like mystique, the light, chiming guitar and tambourine, the utterly un-ironic lover's challenge of the lyric--these are what stick with me, a candle in the otherwise enveloping darkness of this pitch-black masterwork.

Tracy Young oh hell yeah
Robin Rogers I saw Nico play live in a small venue in Scotland months before she died. She was rambling and broken-down, but it was stunning to be within 15 feet of Nico.
Chambers Stevens It says more about your hormones than your taste.

Place Where I Was Partly Raised

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Peter, Paul and Mary. Revisiting this earnest, clean-cut debut record by a group I once revered felt for me roughly like it must for other people to look at pictures of themselves in bell bottoms or disco suits or mullets, as the case may be; though my mid-'80s folk phase didn't coincide with the appropriate generation--it was a consciously retro obsession--it was no less ardently pursued, with all the blind, unfiltered subjectivity of youth. I feel I must hasten to add that my folk diet also contained healthy servings of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, the Limeliters and Bud & Travis (Dylan and Dave Van Ronk would come later). But PP&M, with this and their subsequent two albums (Moving and In the Wind), were major "folk" touchstones for me, and that influence is hard to shake.

I put "folk" in scare quotes because this listen really got me thinking: Just what was this thing called folk, as this trio helped to define it for generations of guitar pickers, protest singers, and church praise bands? Having since heard some of the source material on which their versions were based, it's striking how foursquare and prettified, even classical, PP&M's versions are. This is weird, old American music domesticated for Mitch Miller and Ed Sullivan. When they do nod to the blues, in either their vocals or the guitar parts, they sound similarly prim, even when they're manic (I wholly sympathize, of course--I've also been the white guy trying to make up for lack of soul with speed, volume, and passion).

So is there anything of value here? Though I much prefer their later Album 1700 and some of the songs I recall from their Ten Years Together collection, I think I played this collection so much because, within the confines of their "folk" shtick, they're never less than pros, and though as a group they could often create a blandly anthemic sound, they didn't quite lose their quirky individual personalities when they were pressed by manager Al Grossman into a Greenwich Village supergroup; they're accomplished and tasteful, sure, but not off-puttingly slick. And their arrangements, for all their limitations, have their undeniable pleasures.

As with Simon & Garfunkel's Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., the vocals are neatly panned (in this case, Mary leads from the middle, while Peter takes the left and Paul the right), so there's a kind of take-it-or-leave-it transparency to the whole enterprise that is refreshing. No one's trying to pull anything here; the music, with all its flaws and merits, is quite naked.

I will admit that I can barely stand to listen to the anti-war songs--not for their anti-war sentiment but because their old-timey quaintness, in context, seems way wide of the mark--and the children's songs are still oddly serious, even lachrymose. But the gospel tunes hold up well, ballads like "Sorrow" and "500 Miles" still go down easy, and--to my pleasant surprise--the quasi-Latin novelties, "Bamboo" and "Lemon Tree," made me smile. Perhaps the Belafonte-esque, proto-world music strain of the folk era now strikes me as simply more fun, and more honestly showbiz, than the somber-hairshirt routine embodied by the rest. Originally I think these preferences were reversed, but I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now.

Chris Wells another beautiful, thoughtful post. thanks for sharing these, rob.
Sonia Ruud Yes, yes, yes!
Joe McDade It must have been the mid- to late-70s when KPHO TV 5 in Phoenix ran reruns of the old Jack Benny show like at 11:30 at night. First time I ever saw them, up late at night babysitting my younger brothers. They sang "Blowin' in the Wind" and looked so EARNEST. Benny walked out on stage to shake their hands. When the applause died down he asked which of them was Peter and which Paul. When they ID'd themselves he turned to their partner and said, "So I guess that would would make you Mary."
Rob Weinert-Kendt Great story, Joe. What I didn't have room for in my post is that I trace the beginning of my high school folk phase to your playing the song "Sounds of Silence" in your car on a break from play rehearsal in the parking lot at Central High. I'd never heard it, and it blew me away. Another fun fact: My folk appetite was then fed by the record collection of another friend's dad. Yes, Jon Kyl apparently had a youthful folk phase, too.
Joe McDade Great image. Wonder how he dressed. For you, that must have been like finding out that "B-1" Bob Dornan, before being elected as Orange County Congressman and becoming one of Reagan/Bush's loyal foot soldiers, risked life and freedom in the South in the 1950s in an effort to register black voters. Which he did.
Joe McDade By the way, I remember everything about that audiotape: the color of the cassette (grey), the color of the label (white) the nature of my own marks (black ballpoint). That entire school year, just about every time I took out you-know-who on a Friday or Saturday night, that S&G mix was the tape I played on the way home, most memorably on that stretch of Indian School that runs along the canal, mile after winding mile with no streetlight. For all that--well, you couldn't really call it my folk phase, but it took me four more years to go nuts for Dylan, at USC, once again when you were a freshman and I was a senior.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pictures of Pagan Russia

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra). Contrary to Patton Oswalt, not everything that ever was is available on the Internet forever; just try finding old classical LPs, digitized and downloadable, as I've been trying to do for this ongoing revisiting-albums project. In this case of Rite, I grew up on Ormandy's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (on cassette, in fact), and the only place I can now track it down online is as part of a 12-CD set (no, thanks). Since I did hear Boulez conduct it at least once with the L.A. Philharmonic, and it was available on Amazon, I opted for his version as a reasonable facsimile.

Heard nearly a century after its premiere, Rite still shudders and snarls and seethes; it is music's great Primitivist ur-text, the orchestral equivalent of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. But much as Picasso's once-jarring pictorial gestures have been domesticated by familiarity, the explosive dissonances of Rite, while still imposing and effective when heard in context, have become nearly a film-score lingua franca; their power to jolt is unabated, their power to shock is not.

Two things, though, struck me this time around: The metrical and rhythmic irregularities are arguably far more unsettling than the dissonances. This piece never really settles down, even when it slows down, and the few times it does amble into a comfortable 4/4 groove, watch out--it's almost always the calm before another storm of whoop-ass. Along these lines, it's telling that the percussion largely doesn't drive this rhythmic free-for-all; until the final few movements, the drums and cymbals are followers, not leaders. Indeed, I think what's ultimately so deeply disconcerting and powerful--in other words, irreducibly badass--about Rite is that it often sounds like Stravinsky is playing the whole orchestra like a drum kit, and he's using it to play a wild, unpredictable drum solo, not lay down a toe-tapping beat.

But that image may sell short the other great achievement I noticed this time around: how different, even alien the orchestra sounds from its 19th-century antecedent. The strings may be the least altered, and the horns mostly fill a familiarly forbidding, foreboding role, but Stravinsky's writing for the winds--the bassoons and oboes in particular, but also the clarinets and flutes--still sounds fresh and raw, writhing and slippery and profoundly exotic, like the music of no earthly place at any time in history. Except, of course, his own and our own, and we're all the richer and stranger for it.

Diana Birchall I just saw the Joffrey do the ballet in Los Angeles on Saturday. The music was fantastic. Happy birthday by the way!
Carey Fosse The berceuse is tremendous - melody and colors..
Joe McDade Most memorable comparison: Pauline Kael's, twinning RITE with "Last Tango in Paris."
Jeremy J Lee Strange that something the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded isn't available in the states. DAMN YOU LICENSING FIENDS!
Jeremy J Lee It's a piece that changed everything. From the first note of the score, it changed what a bassoon could be asked to do. The opening night caused a literal riot in the audience. Oh, to be in a world where people actively participated in the event...
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Jeremy, what's interesting about the bassoon part is that while a lot of 20th century composers (a lot of them film composers) eagerly ran with the dissonances that Stravinsky pioneered here, they still mostly wrote for the bassoon the way 19th century composers did: to signify lumbering, waddling, farting, etc. (Grandpa in PETER AND THE WOLF, etc.). That's one reason, I think, that RITE's wind writing still sounds authentically weird and unsettling; Stravinsky did not hear anything cute in the bassoon.
Jeremy J Lee It's the longing of a crocodile to sing like a bird.
Jeremy J Lee Listen to these guys. I found it a few years ago, and it kinda blew my mind...
Jeremy J Lee Holst's MARS movement of The Planets has some almost direct quotes from the Stomping section of RITE. And of course, where would Darth Vader be without either of these?
Rob Weinert-Kendt Not just Darth Vader. The quotes here are outrageous:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Lie in His Voice

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Leonard Cohen). Songwriters and composers didn't used to invariably sing their own tunes, at least not for the official record. Blame the change on the Beatles and/or Dylan if you will; I'm not hoping to turn back the clock, but I do wonder if some of the great singer/songwriters of the past 50 years or so would have fared better with the "singer" duties handled by others. As much as I count Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits as indispensable vocal stylists, for instance, and as much as I cherish their original versions of their songs, their voices are acquired tastes that most people don't bother to acquire (and it's hard to blame them).

Though his voice isn't as glaringly flawed or as abrasive as the aforementioned, I'd count the tall, gnomic Leonard Cohen in their company. In fact, there are only a handful of his songs I prefer in his original renditions; too often the feeling I get from his vocal performances is a total lack of interest, and the production on most of his records sounds similarly stale (I tried to love Various Positions, I really did). That's why I'm glad this sleek, gleamingly somber record from 1987 was my introduction to his work (thanks to an L.A. Times piece by Chris Willman). Revisiting it now--well into the permanent resurgence of Cohen's career, well after the ubiquitous Cale/Buckley "Hallelujah" and the endless tribute covers by every disheveled, sensitive hipster alive--I'm even more grateful, because what Warnes and producer Roscoe Beck do here is put Cohen's lovely, old-fashioned, but unstintingly unsentimental songcraft in a jewel case and shine a piercing, velvety light on it. Apart from a misjudged light-rock cover of "Bird on a Wire," every song here, even the uptempo ones, seems to have welled up from some deep inner sob into a perfect, lapidary shape.

And with her warm blade of a mezzo-soprano, Warnes honors the songs' melancholy and mystery and resignation without evoking, as Cohen's voice too often does, one of those bearded mountaintop gurus in a New Yorker cartoon. The marriage of songs and interpreter has seldom been as mutually rewarding.

Chris Willman Thanks for the link so I could re-read my little piece on this album for the first time in 26 years. I can't believe that the one time I interviewed Leonard Cohen, I ended up using one quote from him! I'm hoping that was the editors' fault and not mine... I was just thinking recently that I need to give this album a spin.
Chris Willman But do you really think Costello's voice is more flawed and abrasive than Cohen's? Elvis has my favorite rock voice, other than McCartney's--though sometimes I try to remember that it strikes novices the wrong way. Leonard's, on the other hand... I think of that as a higher barrier for entry. I know what you mean about not being able to read his level of emotional investment, though I learned to like that as, I guess, deadpan, given how funny a lot of his lyrics are. But that's my perpetual complaint about Willie Nelson.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Chris, you turned me on to more music than you know (when I spin BRING THE FAMILY again, I will have to cite you there, too). I love Costello's voice, too, but it can be abrasive; when a friend of mine observed that EC sounded like he had a cold, I couldn't listen to him for a while, because stuffed-up nose is all I could hear. I still find Leonard's deadpan off-putting, but Willie? At his best, in the RED HEADED STRANGER days, I have no problem reading him--and I guess I'm also less bothered by the laconic-cowboy 'tude when it's cowboy music.
David Tobocman This was mine intro to Leonard Cohen as well. I only recently got into the man himself and I find his first album to be a stunner. As far as production and arrangements, New Skin for the Old Ceremony is easy to love. Jennifer Warnes handles the duties well here. Great songs, recommended.
David Tobocman Let me add that Cohen's maleness is so important to his bag that nothing here rises to the level of an essential version, but her Manhattan is great and is my preferred listen.
Anne Elsberry Well, maybe, but I think Famous Blue Raincoat and Chelsea Hotel need Leonard's voice.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dans les caboulots

Original Facebook post here.

Today's formative-album replay: Serge Gainsbourg, La Javanaise, Vol 2, 1961-63. I remember well the first time I heard his name and his pungent, plangent chansons. Twenty years ago the great opera/cabaret diva Stephanie Vlahos, whose Weill show at Largo and roles at L.A. Opera I had enjoyed, was telling me about her new all-French program, which would include several songs by composers I'd heard of (Poulenc, Brel) as well as someone named Gainsbourg. Though the name was entirely new to me, I nodded along as if I knew exactly who she meant, all the while secretly thinking of "The Blue Boy."

In those pre-Internet days, I would have to actually to go to a record store to find out more about an artist I hadn't heard of. As it happened, I was about to be taking my one and only trip to Paris, so I was able to pick up this album--a collection of early efforts in a career that would span decades--in cassette form at a store there. I started spinning it constantly on my Walkman, in alternation with some Ravel, and was cast under the fitful spell of this deeply odd, occasionally brilliant songsmith. The first tune, "Le chanson de Prevert," had layers of strummy acoustic guitars and a lachrymose, vaguely gypsy minor-key harmony, and I immediately heard him as a sort of French Leonard Cohen. But within a few tracks, he had veered alternately into prim chamber music, bachelor-pad jazz, saxy rockabilly, and faux-Andean flute folk, all the while singing/chanting in a voice that could be round and ripe or breathy, insinuating. He was seldom as passionate as Brel, but he sounded less disengaged and wizened than Cohen. In fact, he most often sounded ironic and a little high, as if to sing were an absurdity, best approached under the influence.

It was Gallic ennui frozen into an attitude, in other words. Revisited all these years later, this music strikes me as bewitching at best, breezily cheesy at worst. There's a matter-of-fact melancholy in that bassoon of a voice, and even in his whimsy--and there is plenty of it, more than is really necessary--it has a droopy gravity. It's essentially frowny music. What I'd really love is to hear again Vlahos' soaring renditions of "Les amours perdues" and "En realisant ta lettre," which I heard in her show at Atlas Bar & Grill when I returned from France, at last properly prepared to revere this mystery man.

Years later I got my band Millhouse to make one of these tunes a staple of our sets. Apologies for my clueless pronunciation:

Stephanie Vlahos Rob! I'm not sure i deserve such encomiums but sharing Gainsbourg is always a great pleasure. He was endlessly fascinating in all regards. Les Amours Perdues...sheer perfection. I'm not sure my particular take on his songs ever did him justice but I loved trying. That being said, revisiting the stage might be possible
Rob Weinert-Kendt Stephanie, I preferred your versions in many cases, much as I do Jennifer Warnes' renditions of Leonard Cohen's songs, for instance. I think I have a tape of you doing "Accordeon" with Nick Ariondo...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Grazin' the Edge

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Lone Justice. Like Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, this is a debut record in which a strong, charismatic lead personality transcends the largely indifferent playing of a band for hire; unlike that debut, though, the singing is miles better and the songwriting is much more uneven.

On the one hand, the ultra-confident, gospel-tinged wail and warp of lead vocalist Maria McKee is amazing, riveting, traffic-stopping--it's a vocal debut roughly akin to the one by that other Elvis. But only a handful of songs here really stand up: two rock-soul singles ("Sweet, Sweet, Baby" and "Ways To Be Wicked") and two country ballads ("Don't Toss Us Away" and "You Are the Light"). That first pair are produced and arranged within an inch of their lives--you can really tell that producer Jimmy Iovine felt like these were the hits and lavished all his attention on them, at the expense of the rest--and the latter two are simple, straightforward, coulda-been-one-take renditions, and all the better for it. The rest of these tunes get by, to the extent they do, on McKee's swagger and a certain sense of promise--the feeling that this band will work out the kinks, their influences are in the right place (Springsteen, The Blasters, Woody Guthrie), and damn that girl can sing. Along with other L.A.-based country/roots acts of the early '80s, I was totally on board with where Lone Justice would take me next.

Alas, their second and last album, Shelter, turned up roughly the same ratio of great to so-so songs. I went on to adore McKee's first two solo albums, and though I had a learning curve with the ones after that--as with k.d. lang, it took me a while to get used to her dropping the country/roots trappings I'd first fallen for and trying on other colors--I would now call myself a fan of all her work. It's still a shame that a singer this great (and she's still one of the best around) has never found a great band to match her, and that a singer this winning and versatile has struggled all along to find a wide audience. I once thought this record had introduced me to a promising band that might one day be an essential one; that it instead only ended up introducing me to its frontwoman's formidable and under-sung talents is not a bad consolation prize.

Cinco Paul I heartily second every single thing you said.
Shawn Pogatchnik Still burnin' a flame for Ms. McKee, I see...
Mark de la Viña Though the band was indifferent, they were actually pretty amazing with the likes of Marvin Etzioni and future X guitarist Tony Gilkyson in the lineup. And yes, those singles still hold up. Thanks for the reminder!
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Mark: Yeah, they were great live, and others have pointed out that they made some great demos before their first studio album. This page is a treasure trove/wormhole of vintage LJ material:
Mark de la Viña So cool. I was recently reminded of them when a bluegrass band at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival pulled out a cover of "Soap Soup Salvation." Since you are on an '80s kick, are you about to start writing an appreciation for grebo? Thanks for the link!