Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Less of a Thinking Man

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Billy Joel, Glass Houses.
What do you do if you're a piano man who wants to rock? You can try standing up at the keyboard, like Jerry Lee Lewis, or banging the 88s hard enough to turn them into a sort of horizontal rhythm/lead guitar, a la early Ben Folds.

Or, as Billy Joel did on this half-great record from 1980, you can just scrap the piano--that sedentary, inherently orchestral berth, with its embarrassment of harmonic riches tending all too easily to fall into showtune-cocktail-cabaret lushness--and pick up the six-string, the tool of authenticity and directness for folk troubadours as much as rockers, the phallic weapon with which a frontman leads the troops into three-chord battle. It's a yin/yang I know well firsthand; I only ever felt like a bandleader when I was out front with a guitar on, whereas at the keyboard I've always felt like either a sideman or like a singer/songwriter with a backing band (issues I still hadn't worked out when Rufus Wainwright knocked me flat).

I can't be sure what brought on Joel's new guitar focus; in retrospect it seems clear he'd heard Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, The Cars, probably even The Clash--the traces are there for the finding, and not just in the defensive lyrics of "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me"--but also because he always had one ear, or one ventricle, in Beatlemania, and even tunesmith Paul rocked a lot harder at the axe than on the keys. The homage is clear from the start, in the chiming George Harrison riff that opens "You May Be Right," right up to the end, with the strummy, McCartneyesque ballad "Through the Long Night," which sounds like the love child of "For No One" and "Michelle." In between there's a lot of fine, tossed-off ear candy, some relatively credible hard rock (he did once co-front this outfit), and a certain Joel-standard quota of cringey sax solos and groaner lyrics.

But if I ever wondered why the raw, despairing "All for Leyna" stands out from this collection--and it still does, swarming synths and all--I realized on this revisit one big reason why. It's because this sad, sweaty stalker's plea is the only track on the album led by piano, though even that piano sounds nerve-jangled, out-of-tune, as woozy and warped as the song's grief-stricken narrator. I'm always impressed by Joel's craftmanship, sometimes turned off by a certain clammy closeness in his personality (he's a bit like the earnest loudmouth at the bar who won't let you leave until you hear him out), and often embarrassed by his pretensions to cleverness or grandeur, but I'm almost always a sucker for his gutpunch moments of naked, needy cray-cray, from the vicious "Big Shot" to the turgid "Until the Night," and "All for Leyna" is the best of this neck-vein-popping lot. Maybe that's because it's straining all the harder to rock next to all these ostensibly macho guitar moves.

Jack Lechner Exactly right.
Joe McDade My parents took me to his concert at the Arizona State basketball arena in November of '79 (we listened to Jimmy Carter in a press conference about the hostages on the drive out). His two previous albums had been the breakouts: "The Stranger" had put him on the map and "52nd Street" had put him on top. It was the first time ever I had heard "All for Leyna" and "You May Be Right"; we all wanted to hear "Big Shot," and he didn't disappoint, as it was the last number, pre-encore. Brought the house down.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Demande pas pourquoi

Today's formative-album replay: Various artists, Songs of Kurt WeillWeill wrote an operetta and a few songs in French on a brief layover between Nazi Germany and the U.S., and some fine examples of that overlooked ouevre are beautifully represented on this regrettably out-of-print collection from 1958. But next to those worthy discoveries is an even greater store of riches: This is one of the few records I've found on which the Brecht-Weill standards, from "Surabaya Johhny" to "Alabama Song," are rendered tartly and (to my mind) definitively in French.

It's not an exaggeration to say that hearing these gutsy, iconic German classics in the language and chanson idiom of Brel and Piaf and Gainsbourg is a revelation--it even sounds a bit like a homecoming. Franck Aussman's orchestra, clearly taking a cue from the Lewis Ruth Band arrangements, plays this catalogue in a way that's both loose and jaunty, almost casual, but also spikier, more syncopated than we're used to hearing it; the banjo and rickety saloon piano feel like part of the percussion section, and the percussion in turn feels like a crucial partner in the accompaniment. The vocals, mostly handled by the unflappable contralto Catherine Sauvage, have that distinctly Gallic sigh, edging easily into a sneer, that locates passion and resignation, the embrace and the shrug, closer together on the dynamic/dramatic spectrum than we Americans (and most definitely than the Germans) do. And the Francophone setting implicitly places Weill's signature harmonic language within an early-mid-century Continental context, alongside Milhaud and Satie (or his teacher Busoni) as much as Hindemith or Eisler.

These are renditions entirely comfortable with rubato, with pauses and breaths amid the forward bounce of the beat, but nothing ever feels lingered or fussed over, and this pays huge dividends with selections that torch divas have all but wrung dry ("Surabaya," "Barbara Song"). There are also a few unique "finds" here: "Alabama Song," for instance, which was originally written in doggerel English, here translated persuasively into French alongside the other German-to-French transfers; and the heartbreaking Brecht-Weill ur-text "Nanna's Lied," a 1939 gem which didn't surface widely until Teresa Stratas' 1981 watershed The Unknown Kurt Weill, offered here in Sauvage's sobering, world-weary rendition. While Weill's widow Lenya, for whom he wrote "Nanna's Lied" as a gift, was busy promoting his posthumous legacy in Germany and the U.S., French musicians of the 1950s clearly already had Weill's number: He was secretly one of them. This stunning record almost makes me believe it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Drinking Cheap Wine and Making Romance

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Ry Cooder, Get Rhythm. It wouldn't be quite right to call this overflowing gumbo of a record self-effacing; Cooder's signature guitar sounds, both the crunchy-electric-blues bark and the fragrant acoustic filigrees, are all over it, as are his dusky, idiomatic baritone vocals. And his unique taste and vision--what might be called his Afro-Mexi-Caribbean-rockabilly take on the blues--infuses every note. But this is not a guitar hero's showcase; there are no long jams or face-burning solos, and only one instrumental track, the twangy Keltner/Cooder groove "Low-Commotion." Instead, this is a bandleader's record, a lovingly curated, perfectly cast revue of feisty, not-at-all-fusty roots music--old weird Americana dipped deeply in Gulfcoast salt-water, bayou cattails, and borderland dust.

With one exception, the songs are all exuberant romps ostensibly about music or partying or sex, with Cash and Presley as tentpoles, from a "Get Rhythm" that's refashioned as zydeco gospel to "All Shook Up" made over as a sweaty Delta stomp. (Chuck Berry is also de- and reconstructed with a masterful acoustic version of "13 Question Method.") The exception to all this revelry is a reverie, and one that makes explicit the album's underlying theme of boundary hopping. In "Across the Borderline," Cooder (with Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt) wrote a kind of tragic spiritual, a song analogizing immigrants' dashed dreams of a better life to all of our noble but doomed higher aspirations. And in this definitive version, flowing gently but inexorably along like the Rio Grande that is its central setting, it is as heartrendingly beautiful as the rest of the record is heedlessly jovial.

The takeaway of this juxtaposition--this beach cocktail with a slight sting--might be summed up by a faux-calypso song Cooder ought to cover one day: Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Ancient Times

Today's formative-album replay: Vangelis, Chariots of Fire. I don't think I'd want to meet my 13-year-old self: He was an insufferable Anglophile who didn't realize The Preppy Handbook was satire, who had renounced pop for classical music (the fever broke soon enough), and who nonetheless fancied himself some kind of leftist (in Reagan-era Arizona, no less). How did l survive middle school without severe and regular beatings?

In addition to the usual PBS fare, the twin watersheds that rocked my world in 1981 were the interminable miniseries of Brideshead Revisited and this earnest track-and-field fable, the only sports movie I've ever embraced (corollary question to the above: How did I turn out straight?). My inordinate love for this deeply silly bit of British folderol must explain why I overcame my distaste for both non-classical music and synthesizers and happily put its execrable soundtrack into heavy rotation.

It is really hard now to recapture that youthful affection, even ironically; this feast of analog electronica, bristling with sounds that are alternately skin-crawling and eyelid-weighing, isn't even good bad music. A few of the midrange-bell-chime sounds don't bother me as much as, say, the crinkly-silver starburst chime sounds, and there's still something affectingly brooding about the warmish, wounded-sounding electric-piano meditation "Abraham's Theme" (remember the film's awkward anti-Semitism angle?). But all those fake seagull bleats, ersatz horns, plastic-ice-cube piano, and shuddering timpani, not to mention the whackadoodle UFO landing that leads into an otherworldly rendition of the hymn "Jerusalem"--I can only hear this record now as a youthful indiscretion. Geoffrey Burgon's psuedo-stately soundtrack for Brideshead is admittedly no masterpiece, but it sounds all the better in contrast with this glittering turd.

Joe Drymala your 13-year-old self and my 13-year-old self would have totally nerded out together.
Catherine Trieschmann Miller I will unabashedly love CofF forever, soundtrack & all. I was surprised, however, to realize that I saw this movie in the theater & fell in love with it when I was 7. Could I really have been that young?
Rob Weinert-Kendt I should revisit the movie, too, I guess...but the soundtrack, feh. (And thanks for making me feel old.)
Jimb Fisher Believe it or not, I listened to Vangelis quite a bit when I was in high school. Always thought CoF was his lamest effort despite the iconic main theme. As far as soundtracks go, his music for Blade Runner and The Bounty were far superior and their old-timey synth sounds have aged much better.
Mark Watkins I spent a month this year tracking down and listening to all versions of Blade Runner soundtrack pieces <-- 30="" brilliant.="" chariots="" could="" of="" only="" seconds="" span="" take="" tho.="" totally="">
Carrie Yoshimura Farnham This was a fun trip down memory lane. I'm sure I would be horrified by my 80s self if I met her today. I do remember that the run on the beach to this anachronistic music seemed really cool at the time, but Chariots could not hold a candle to Brideshead. I had s stuffed dog named in part after Sebastian Flyte.
Keythe Farley Two words: Chuck Mangione
Joe McDade Okay. Find the two common elements in these three movies: "Chariots of Fire," "Stealing Home," "The Trial of Billy Jack." One is a concentration on a specific sport ranging from text ("Chariots") to, ancillary subject ("Trial," with the kung fu). The other? All three movies have that "Huh? What?" element: the flashback-within-a-flashback.
Joe McDade You and I traveled in separate directions with "Brideshead," pal; I became hopelessly addicted in my twenties and watch it end-to-end once a year. Maybe for a world I'll never know. Non et in Arcadia Ego, unfortunately.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dreaming in a Crack

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Sonic Youth, Goo. Released a full year before Nirvana's Nevermind, this sprawling, surefooted major-label debut by these New York No Wavers had a much bigger impact on me than any from the Subpop catalogue. It may be heretical to see these art-punk songs through a pop lens, but for me the fretless four-note motif that anchors "Dirty Boots," or the chromatic surge between the chorus lines of "Kool Thing" ("I don't wanna/I don't think so"), are earworms as hardy as any on a bubblegum pop record, and the gamut of guitar effects--the headstock harmonics, whammy-bar boings, feedback ebbs and swells--sound to me as carefully and catchily placed as the production on classic Motown or Pet Sounds.

Of course, these meticulous touches are employed to create a minor-key blur that's the opposite of conventional "pop," but at its best this record really grooves in a way most hard rock seldom does. With the beatbox sheen of Steve Shelley's drums undergirding the heavy guitar superstructure, much of this record lurches forward like a bobblehead: giant guitar swoops propped up by a nimble, dancing beat.

I will admit that, as with Talking Heads' Naked, there's a big divide for me between this record's sides 1 and 2--I've never really warmed up to the latter's more dissonant gestures, especially as compared to the perfection of the album's first five tunes, which hurtle forward like a fast car, only to crash and burn into the time-stopping noisescape of "Mote." On this revisit, I tried to give the last six tunes a fighting chance, and found a few lifelines: the chiming major-key epiphany that lifts "Cinderella's Big Score," the artful two-guitar weave of "Disappearer." Even so, the first five spurts of Goo are the ones that stick with me. BONUS: I tracked down the odd Kim Gordon/LL Cool J interview that inspired "Kool Thing."

Jimb Fisher I prefer the Millhouse version.
Rob Weinert-Kendt I don't think we ever covered Sonic Youth (though we probably stole from them inadvertently).
Jimb Fisher We definitely played "Dirty Boots" early on. We may have never played it live, but I still have the chords you wrote out.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Wow, really? You must be right. Remember our versions of "Oh My God," "Substitute," and "Radio Free Europe"? Good times.
Jimb Fisher "Queen Bitch," "Jump in the River,"...good times, good times.
Rob Weinert-Kendt But "Jump in the River" actually became a staple of our set! Whereas "Burning Down the House" should probably have stayed in the rehearsal room...
Jimb Fisher Too much funk for us white boys to justifiably attempt.
Rob Weinert-Kendt The only "funk" we created was the smell of that hot little room in Bake's house.
Jason Benjamin totally with you, Rob. Sonic Youth had a way bigger impact on me than anything on Sub Pop, and I owe it all to Goo. And the first impression was accurate: all of their albums are half-great, half-boring

Monday, July 22, 2013

Candy for the Mind

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. Heard again all these years later, this impressive but flawed Disney tribute album from 1988 both betrays producer Hal Willner's discomfort with the simple pleasures of the Mouse's songbook and illustrates his admirable if foolhardy ambition to one-up Uncle Walt at his own game, to create his own sonic world around these beloved tunes. Hence Willner's aggressively alt vision, kicking off the record with a foreboding off-Beat brain-melt by Ken Nordine, over a creepy-carny backdrop thrown down by the record's house band (Frisell, Horvitz); trying to tie songs together into pretentiously titled mini-suites ("The Darkness Sheds Its Veil"); layering in sound effects and bits of narration. Too often these exotic edges seem imposed on the material, which is why my favorite section of the record this time around (if not my favorite tracks overall) came with the unlikely quartet of Syd Straw's swaying "Blue Shadows on the Trail," David Johansen's kitschy "Castle in Spain," Yma Sumac's lush "I Wonder," and Garth Hudson's organ-grinder "Feed the Birds"; these versions' idiomatic oddness matched the original material's quirks rather than gratuitously weirding them up, as in Tom Waits' hilariously hideous black-lung take on "Heigh Ho."

Elsewhere the record doesn't hold together so much as offer high points (Sun Ra's "Pink Elephants," Los Lobos' "I Wanna Be Like You," the Mats' "Cruella De Ville"), low ones (a tinkly, tentative "Little April Showers," Aaron Neville's pointless "Mickey Mouse March," Bonnie Raitt's somnabulent "Baby Mine" ), and several points in between. When Ringo Starr and Herb Alpert emerge from another portentous Nordine soundscape to close the album with "When You Wish Upon a Star," we're put in mind of another ambitious but uneven album capped by a lush, Starr-crooned lullaby. We can hardly hold it against Stay Awake that it's not The White Album, and given the essential work Willner did elsewhere (his criminally out-of-print Lost in the Stars compilation introduced me to my favorite composer, Kurt Weill), I can only bow to his chutzpah that he would even court such a comparison.

Dennis Kim-Prieto i loved that record. i guess i still do, even if i no longer have it...
Rob Weinert-Kendt Love is a song that never ends.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

First Republic Blues

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Originální Pražský Synkopický Orchestr, Stará Natoč GramofonThey don't have the fame or street cred of the Plastic People of the Universe, but I think a case could be made that this '70s- and '80s-era Czech big band was in its own sly way a subversive cultural lifeline for reform-minded pre-Velvet Revolution Czechs. For while Plastic People wielded the anarchic spirit of Anglo-American rock as an explicit challenge to Communist conformity, OPSO didn't just glance to the old West but looked inward and back, to the Camelot-like era of the First Republic--a time whose enviable combination of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, in a country with a long, proud history as the seat of European power and culture (remember, Prague is actually west of Vienna), may be over-idealized in retrospect but did inarguably represent some kind of golden age of Czech nationhood, all the more mourned for its brutal interruption. This very pointed brand of nostalgia for Jazz Age democracy, independence, and prosperity must surely have seemed, if not quite counter-revolutionary, then a reproach to the Soviet-satellite status quo nonetheless.

Not that this pitch-perfect record, produced in 1982 but sounding about 50 years older than that, could be mistaken for the sound of rebellion. If anything, what shines through these pristine but vigorous arrangements of Czech standards is cohesion, a warm, mutually magnanimous sectional unity that might be cloying if it weren't so precise and nimble. The idiomatic trumpet solo in the tune above is actually atypical of the album, which is mostly content to keep its gleaming brass, humming winds, and weeping strings in tight, interlocking phalanxes, a foxtrot parade. The exceptions are the suave nasal croon of Ondrej Havelka, the Bollywood-worthy chirp of Jitka Nováková, and some witty specialty percussion, supplying just the right woodblock waddle here, a gong or a starting-pistol gunshot there.

But if this record's drama is somewhat submerged beneath its smiling surfaces, I nevertheless cherish it more than the vintage efforts of today's neo-Jazz Agers--in part for its exotic provenance, but also because I know it wasn't so easy for these Czech retro-geeks to look back in innocence, let alone anger.

A few notes: I discovered this in cassette form on my inspiring 1995 Prague trip (the same one that led to this epiphany), and though I didn't get a chance to see them live, apparently OPSO (minus Havelka as frontman) still play regularly on Charles Bridge.

Larry Schweikart Not knowing the band, I defer to your expertise. I guess the question is, were the listeners thinking this was a form of subversion?
Rob Weinert-Kendt I seem to remember the young Czech who introduced it to me (and who now lives in Brooklyn and works for Kroll, in fact) conveying that to me. One suggestive clue I was able to track down: They often performed songs in English during their live shows, but on record and on radio broadcasts they only sang in Czech (until after 1989).
Larry Schweikart That's good, even better if their English lyrics were "Screw the Commie bastards!"

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Shuffle, Like In Cards

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Live 1973. I'm going to venture a possibly heretical theory about the brief, boozy blur of a life misspent by one Ingram Cecil Connor III, a musical wanderer and inveterate instigator who recorded a mere handful of records between legendary benders, which seem to have had as much to do with feeding an addiction to jamming and playing old records with his famous friends (Keith Richards, Roger McGuinn) as with the more familiar vices which claimed his life at the tender, Keatsian age of 26. The theory is this: that Gram Parsons' outsized influence on what would variously be called folk rock, roots rock, and years later alt country came less from the wisps of actual music he left behind--a strong record here, a great song there--than on the force of his personality, the force by which he impressed on his more well-known (and well-adjusted) comrades the restless, expansive, quirky taste that still makes his name, among a certain set of clued-in musicians, the byword for country-rock cool.

Parsons is one of those you-had-to-be-there artists, in short, since for those seeking the source of his purported genius, frankly, the pickings are relatively slim. I admire his solo albums and his work with the Flying Burrito Bros., and I've heard the stories about his late nights at the Villa Nellcote, but I could never quite hear what the fuss is about. Until, that is, I came across this modest-seeming but indispensable live record in a used record store in Ashland, Ore., decades ago. In its warm, mud-honey country sound, heavy on the midrange but with a solid kick on the bottom and a sweet topping of pedal steel and Emmylou Harris, this record conveys the gnomic, deceptively casual Parsons charisma in spades. It has an intimacy and a presence unlike any other live record I know apart from this one. You can almost hear the shy, ironic smile in Parsons' shambling stage patter, though one of the record's most startling moments is the sharp transition from his soft-spoken demurral about being a Harvard dropout into the full wail of J. Geils' "Cry One More Time."

That contrast--between hipster detachment and naked soul--is just one key to Parsons' unique magnetism. There are only two and a half GP originals here, including the haunting slow-burner above, but all the songs are suffused with a kind of wry, old-soul ache, a circumspect heartbreak that's no less shattering for being underplayed. Many young rock 'n' rollers try to sing the white man's blues, which is what country & western is at heart, and sound snotty or heavy-handed, either condescending or over-reverent. I think of Parsons' approach as sidelong, as both leaning into the music's deep roots and treading them lightly--because, after all, it's music, and it's got a dance in it even when it's down.

It's a postmodern version of authenticity, in other words, and it's one I recognize as a way into music traditions that aren't  "my own," whatever that means exactly. This simultaneous acknowlegment--that what he's doing is both an act, a bit of showbiz razzle, as well as a deeply felt personal expression--seems to me the essence of Parsons' justly influential aesthetic. And until T-Bone Burnett came along, I think this record represents the apotheosis of this new-old tradition.

Chris Coffman thank god you have brought it back!
Patrick Corcoran I lived in the house Gram Parsons and his wife lived in on Laurel Canyon that burned in July, 1973. I didn't know this until the morning in 2003 when I stepped outside to get the paper and found a BBC documentary crew filming on the porch.

The scorched paneling on the walls and ceiling finally made sense.