Friday, August 30, 2013

Remove Yourself From Fashion

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Brave Combo, A Night on Earth. For a series of summers home in Arizona from college in L.A., I wrote music preview features for the Arizona Republic, choosing my subjects by browsing through the New Times' calendar of upcoming shows. I'm not sure if I'd read good things, or really anything, about the Denton, Tex. polka band Brave Combo, before pitching a feature on them, but I became a fan based on their album Polkatharsis, which I got from Rounder in advance of their show at Phoenix's Mason Jar, and based on my lively phone interview with their iconoclastic frontman, Carl Finch (in which I learned, among other things, that he'd written a college thesis or dissertation on Muzak).

It was the year after Paul Simon's Graceland had made so-called "world music" mainstream, and I initially saw Brave Combo's audacious eclecticism--in addition to polkas, they tackled related forms like nortenas as well as sounds from farther afield, like cumbias and zydeco and African pop--in comparison and contrast to the musical tourism of the likes of Simon and David Byrne. But one obvious difference with BC was its aggressive, almost punk-rock squareness, its fervent embrace of major-key oompah and minor-key bathos, which was so intense and po-faced that it made some very unhip sounds somehow hip, or at least undeniably hip-shaking. This wasn't music borne of pop songwriters' mid-career-crisis quest for some exotic flavors to add to their own work; this was a bracing re-strange-ing of the familiar. It sounded to me like my own Midwestern parents' roots music rendered with a kind of devotional irreverence, without blandishment or politesse--with something like the dance-party spirit that undoubtedly gave birth to and sustained these forms in the old country as well as the new. (As it turns out, my parents mostly liked what they heard, too--my mom and I danced to one of their songs at my first wedding.)

I had the great pleasure of seeing BC play, not only at The Mason Jar but also later in L.A. at Al's Bar and at LunaPark (the latter with their most famous fan, Matt Groening, present on the dance floor), and, as with most bands with dance-party roots, live is where they seemed to thrive. But they've made a number of keeper records, too, and this is my favorite by far, with its heavy Latin vibe, sparkling arrangements, and--crucially for music that is often fast and dense--a sense of space and proportion, of dynamic range. What's more, the original tunes here are particularly strong complements to the finely curated covers: not just Finch's wistful, ambling title tune and words-to-live-by polka "Do Something Different" but a string of utterly infectious salsa-rock ditties by bassist/vocalist Bubba Hernandez, all of them odes to the ladies ("Don't Ever Dance With Maria," "Laura," "Dulcecita," "Linda Guerita"). I'm not so sure we needed Bubba's pseudo-suave cover of "Hey There," and Finch's self-consciously thoughtful "What Is This Darkness" isn't his highest point as a writer. But by and large this is the Brave Combo collection that comes closest to the happy two-step anarchy of their live shows.

Jack Lechner I'm nuts about Brave Combo. They haven't come to NYC in years -- do you know if they're still together?
Brave Combo Jack, please sign up for Brave Combo's email list so that you don't miss the next NYC show. We were there a couple of times last winter including Joe's Pub and a free show in Lincoln Square. Nothing in the NE on the books at the moment, but that can change at a drop of a hat!
Jack Lechner With pleasure! Thanks, Brave Combo!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Day Things Turn Sweet

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Style Council, My Ever Changing Moods. As with Elvis Costello, I got introduced to Paul Weller after his "punk" days, then backtracked: With Costello it was the bright, slick Punch the Clock that first made me a fan, though I've since largely grown out of love with that album in favor of some of his sharper, more characteristically tetchy records. With Weller, on the other hand, it was the intro that stuck; though I've come to admire some of his earlier work with The Jam and his later work on his own, this suave retro-soul sampler from 1984 still holds up remarkably well. Its blend of hollow-body jazz guitar, cafe strings, strutting horns and big beats was never really fashionable, even or especially in the ska-happy mid-'80s, but it seemed to conjure its own parallel pop universe, where all these old and new things made sense together, a place where Henry Mancini and Grandmaster Flash were both at home. This was anti-Thatcher pop rendered in smooth styles Maggie herself might have enjoyed if she didn't listen too closely the lyrics, or check the titles ("Dropping Bombs on the White House," for instance, is a deft instrumental shuffle Art Blakey wouldn't sneeze at).

Indeed, whereas at the time this seemed to my sheltered ears like an almost anarchically eclectic mix (hip-hop and ragtime piano on the same record?), what impresses me on a fresh listen is how well it all hangs together. There's maybe a tad too much synth-y gloss on some of these arrangements, and the faintest trace of glibness in Weller's genre sampling--but, blessedly, no distancing irony in it. He sounds as endearingly besotted with pop-soul and jazz chords as he once was with The Kinks or The Clash. And when that kind of fan-boy reverence is given such joyous expression, it is hard to resist; it infuses the album, even in its weakest moments, with an almost overpowering sweetness. Weller's moods may change, but on this album they all sound like good ones.

NOTE: I almost forgot that I dealt admiringly with the above song, and particularly its "chorus lift-off," here.

Kristin Maloney Oo thanks for this! Love Paul Weller!
Rob Weinert-Kendt I neglected in this space to thank Dennis Kim-Prieto for exposing me to this record, as well as the fine work of The Jam.
Cinco Paul I loved this album and can't believe Dennis introduced you to it and not me.
Chris Coffman Every once in a while I get the lead melody for "ever changing moods" in my head. It just jumps in there. 
I saw the guv at coachella one year (some guy named Johnny marr accompanied); that show jarred me. I have much of his solo work and still am able to get inspired by him.

Chris Coffman Oh, and thank you
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Cinco: You weren't even responsible for most of the Costello, believe it or not! If memory serves, you were aghast that I'd fallen for PUNCH THE CLOCK, but you did later help convince me that IMPERIAL BEDROOM is his masterpiece. But you CAN claim having introduced me to The Replacements and Randy Newman, so there's that.
Dennis Kim-Prieto this record sounds like summer. the jam sounds like the fall and winter. and if i introduced you to the jam/style council and elvis, then i have you to thank for the replacements (via cinco, i guess), and husker du. i still get chills at zen arcade...
Rob Weinert-Kendt What's funny, Dennis, is that I passed Husker Du onto you without really getting into myself. But such is taste. I have to credit for Violent Femmes, too, I think, and probably the Smiths (though I didn't really "get" them till later). I heard a lot of those on those drives homes in your Volkswagen Rabbit. What do kids do now to share music, Spotify? Dropbox?
Dennis Kim-Prieto those were good times in that rabbit. it was a good old car.
Cinco Paul Zen Arcade! I need to give that a listen again. I was actually pretty fond of Punch the Clock, but I'm sure I considered it a big drop-off from his earlier work, especially IB. And believe it or not, the teens I know make mix CDs for each other.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Mix CDs! The heart (almost) warms. Mix tapes were a much more constrained/honed form, because you had to do them in real time (and get the levels just right!)...but still, the fact that kids are still exchanging actual items is heartening (though they probably just burn and dump the contents into their iPods, right?).
Justin Warner I really like this version:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Flower Is Free

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Don McLean, American Pie. McLean was not so much a one-hit wonder as an above-average troubadour who struck zeitgeist gold one magic time, like Eden Ahbez with "Nature Boy" or 4 Non-Blondes with "What's Up?" And gold it is in McLean's case, not the fool's kind; I don't want to overstate this, but the impact of hearing this album's iconic title track fresh after many years avoiding it was bracing and mildly revelatory all over again--not just for the pile-on of evocative pop-history lyrics but for the tight, snappy, lightly rollicking arrangement and McLean's faultless phrasing, which straddle folk and rock effortlessly. It's a great record, in other words, not just a great song. As for the song itself, it sounds to me now like the granddaddy of both "Thunder Road" and "Waiting for the End of the World"--apocalyptic Americana that manages the neat trick of invoking Dylan (the jester) without even a whiff of slavish imitation. It's a perfectly calibrated rock and roll hymn, capacious enough to contain all the ambivalence and self-contradiction that oxymoron implies.

As for the rest of the album--well, like I said, McLean is an above-average troubadour in the Jim Croce or Paul Simon mode, with a gentle white-blues tenor and prickly guitar-picking style that surely caught the ear of a young Lindsey Buckingham. There are some lovely, modest ballads here, a few flower-child banalities, the catchily obnoxious raveup "Everybody Loves Me, Baby," and two ambitious gambits with variable results: the affecting if overwrought "The Grave" and the simpering, dunderheaded "Vincent."

But the song that hit me hardest, apart from the title track, was the one that apparently inspired the (even better) song "Killing Me Softly": that would be "Empty Chairs," with the delicately sad circumlocution, "And I wonder if you know/That I never understood/That although you said you'd go/Until you did, I never thought you would." What always seemed like a simple breakup song to me this time sounded a lot more like a sob of straight-up mourning, made all the more heartrending by its quietness and indirection, its attempt to be tidy and circumspect about a crushing loss. Buddy Holly's death may have inspired McLean's great pop jeremiad about the end of American innocence, but the grief of "Empty Chairs" sounds entirely unsymbolic, and a lot closer to home.

Joe McDade I think you described McLean perfectly. AND: this seems the perfect time to remember how Fr. Renna had theorized that McLean based each line of "Vincent" (which, yeah, you don't seem to care for) on a different Van Gogh painting (or else Fr. Renna linked each line with a painting that "seemed" to fit --I forget). The nexus of McLean, Vincent, and Fr. Renna blew my mind, and based on Fr. Renna's descriptions of Van Gogh's artistry ("It's like a relief painting!"), I could hardly wait to see a portrait up close for myself, so when I finally got to New York on my own (living upstate in Binghamton for grad school, visiting Martin Sliwinski in Long Island City for a week in September), I went to MOMA and sought out, of course, "Starry Night." Worth the wait. Blew me away. (This was before the vandalism episode and the glass encasement ruined the complete effect, perhaps forever, so a sad footnote.)
David Barbour The hours we wasted in high school, pouring over the lyrics, wondering what it meant...
Rob Weinert-Kendt Joe: Yeah, I remember that Renna made us listen to that, and I credit him with making us antsy high school snots take a moment to think about Van Gogh seriously...But listening to it now, McLean's song strikes me as ridiculous and presumptuous: Was Van Gogh really all about conveying love, and was all this manic-depressive genius needed someone to love him? Was his problem that he was really "too beautiful" for this world? Oh, they didn't understand you, says Don, but I did, because of what you said "to me." This is a pretentious flower-child gloss on a great, uncompromising, deeply tragic figure. But hey, it sounds nice.
Joe McDade So here's full circle for you: in what I think was his first video produced directly for MTV, Dylan's "Jokerman" was a series of museum-quality paintings, one after the other. Someone wrote that the video was like "Winchester attempting to inflict his kulture on Hawkeye and BJ in the middle of a war zone."
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks for reminding me...I've done BLONDE ON BLONDE but I may have to do INFIDELS again soon.
Jack Lechner Beautifully said, Rob. But McLean wasn't a flower child; he was a frat boy trying to pick up sensitive hippie chicks.
Jack Lechner Must reading:
Rob Weinert-Kendt I haven't read that story yet, but I begrudge no man his I-got-into-music-to-get-laid rationale.