Sunday, September 29, 2013

Break Down and Crawl

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Prince, Graffiti Bridge. Is this when Prince jumped the shark? Even at the time, this uneven soundtrack to the ludicrous 1990 film of the same title sounded half-flaky and half-inspired (at best). So why did I end up spinning it so much? I revere Sign O the Times much more, enjoy Lovesexy and Purple Rain more consistently, even think more highly of the Black Album than this largely tinny pseudo-revue. And yet song for song I know this record all too well, and I think it has partly to do with how much I love a handful of the tracks on it as much or more than any in Prince’s catalogue, and partly to do with the weirdly intimate, homespun quality those great songs have in spades, which the bad songs also partake of; it's hard to tear them apart, much as I'd like to.

If "homespun" seems an odd word for the often dense soundscapes Prince concocts, I find it an apt way to describe the intense single-mindedness of the record’s sound, the sense of a solitary musical vision rattling around in a self-reinforcing echo chamber, both figuratively and literally--I can almost see the man building these songs layer by layer, sound by sound, into the wee hours in some tricked-out home studio. I think this roomful-of-mirrors aspect accounts both for the special intensity of the record’s highs and for the bad-idea pile-ons of its low moments.

Indeed, though it’s above my pay grade, it probably says a lot about Prince’s psychology that a sense of solitude would emerge so strongly from a record so crowded with guest appearances and group-chorus singalongs. But the too-closeness is there from the opening “Dear Dad” monologue and tantrum-like drum blasts of “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” an upbeat song in a major key that nevertheless manages to set a tone of teeth-clenched tension, and which establishes the record’s junky, springy sound, a mix of electric guitar crunch and synth honey over taut, hip-hoppy beats. “New Power Generation” is a somewhat perfunctory anthem, and it’s not until the third track, “Release It,” that the record really takes off, with Morris Day doing his slickster shtick over Prince’s snappiest, slipperiest backing track ever. The high is sustained through the sinuous stomp and sweep of “The Question of U” and the light, tasty grind of “Elephants and Flowers,” and it rises again with the smoky, sneakily dramatic “Joy in Repetition,” one of many such songs that makes you wish an actual film had sprouted around it.

That’s pretty much the sum of Graffiti Bridge’s achievement--four or five great tracks out of 17--with the rest alternating between disposable pop, clammy funk, and heavy-spirited balladry. Guest appearances by Tevin Campbell, Mavis Staples, and George Clinton are, if not outright embarrassments, then missed opportunities, while the rest of the songs with Day and The Time are shruggingly average party jams at best. But all have the thing that make this record compelling, if only intermittently listenable--that gritty/cute bounce swathed in ever-more-baroque production that was Prince’s mid-career signature, and the sense that the general had gotten lost in his own labyrinth, where the path had become both interestingly dark and frustratingly opaque.

Kurt Kassulke Joy in repetition is one of my favorite lesser known Prince songs. I liked Tevin Campbell (round and round?) as well. And Mavis Staples is always amazing.
Jason Benjamin The beginning of him losing all restraint and me bailing out as a fan. Graffiti would have been a very strong album if he had kept it to 8-10 songs. There is no saving the movie, although the Rifftrax crew could probably have a ball.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Yeah, for all my love of those four or five great songs, this was basically the end of my following his work with any kind of attention. And I would LOVE to see a RiffTrax of the movie.
Kirk Pynchon Release is brilliant simply for this one lyric" "Who told you women liked men with no money?"
Mark Watkins release it boy
Mark Watkins tick tick bang - c'mon!
Mark Watkins He worked on a couple pretty good/great songs on the new janelle monae abum (sic)
Mark Watkins post hog -- sorry, went back and listened -- my 2 goose bump tracks have always been Question of U and Still Would Stand All Time (if you can get past the treacly Disney beginning at 3:20 it kicks in hard) for the coordinated hand claps and choir work -- both are emotional experiments, creepy and beautiful. definitely this --> compelling but intermittently listenable
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Kirk: Believe it or not, but I have always heard that line as "Who tortures women like men with no money?" I don't know what that says about me. And @Mark, the new Janelle joint is great--she's his true heir, it seems clear.       

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Land of Hope and Glory*

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: John Williams, Star Wars. How much tunefulness can a film score bear? This revisit to an iconic record of my childhood makes me realize why I’ve since come to prefer Alex North’s glinting, tectonic dissonances and Bernard Herrmann’s tense, swollen fugues to the brash, foursquare tunesmithing of Williams. Don’t get me wrong--Williams has also proven to be a master of the savvy melodic minimalism that ideally suits the film medium, not only with Jaws but with some pulsating cues from JFK (“The Conspirators” is a particular favorite). And there is no denying the immediate and visceral appeal of the alternately soaring and swirling space-opera themes he generated here from spare parts of Holst, Korngold, and Stravinsky, among others, or with his churning, oceanic orchestrations; when all the cylinders are firing, this music epitomizes the ripe, earnest pop triumphalism that made these films explode in, and effectively redirect, the cultural bloodstream.

But the downside of the score's sugar highs is that all those big, 16-bar melodies jockey and crowd each other for dominance in too many of these tracks. All those catchy tunes are too catchy by far, and as such they resist the constant repurposing and reshuffling that is much of the work of a film score. The result is leitmotif overload: a smattering of the Force theme here, a little brush of Leia there, a stab of Luke's octave-leaping signature to top it--all stitched together with a surfeit of scare chords and melodramatic vamping. The tracks that tend to work best, by contrast, spin engaging textures from simpler, sturdier material, like the Rite-of-Spring-derived desert music linked above. There’s real wit and menace, and wonder and indeterminacy, room to imagine, in this stuff--the sweet spot of a good film score.

Next to a propensity for melody, Williams' other strength-to-a-fault is rhythmic propulsion; while much of this score is rightly seen as derivative in one way or another, the pulse-pounding punch of the "Tie Fighter Attack" music, for instance, sounds like a fresh contribution to the medium, hotwiring a swashbuckling orchestral assault to space-borne action in a way that may seem inevitable or old-hat now but was a breakthrough of a kind at the time.

But there's a reason that while I can listen to North's Spartacus soundtrack, or any of the Herrmann/Hitchcock big three (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho) straight through, I long ago trimmed this record to a mix of a few indispensable tracks (including, of course, the sly, letter-perfect “Cantina Band” swing). While a film score’s effectiveness is most properly judged in tandem with the film it was written for, there’s evident pleasure in hearing film music by itself or there'd be no market for records like this. And all these years later, this record sounds to me like a white elephant. (I feel duty-bound to add that I’ve based these observations on a replay of the original 1977 double album, a notorious cut-and-paste job by Williams himself; the more recently remastered “New Hope” release does seem to be a more satisfying listening experience, based on a cursory sampling, than this collection’s exhausting kludge.)

*This is how Williams describes the "throne room" theme in the original liner notes.

Sean Williams This is fantastic. I was doing some animation for a Music Education publisher and my six-year-old was forced to listen to "Mars" about 800 times. When someone pulled up Angry Birds; Star Wars on their iPad, he said, "Hey dad, is that the piece you were animating?" I was able to play through the original piece with him, show him the time signature and the subtle movement changes and he really responded to it. I know the charges of theme-borrowing is a given at this point, but it's interesting to me *how much more interesting* the original is.
Douglas Green Wow, Rob - WOW! Your writing and depth is amazing. I guess I'd disagree with your general thesis here, I think because I'm old enough to have been a movie-geek teen when this little flick came out, and was charmed at the time by its simplicity and obviousness - the score fit perfectly with the dorky retro nature of the fun movie. It was only later that it became taken so seriously, and compared to Cinema Greats. Everything you say here is true, but to me it's like saying "The Little Mermaid" soundtrack is simplistic compared to "West Side Story." Of course it is - it's a kids' movie. Well once, a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, so was "Star Wars!" But still, I'll repeat... WOW!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Shuffle It Right

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Hoagy Carmichael, The Stardust Road. This bargain-bin collection, which I once owned on cassette, doesn't give us the hepcat Hoagy, the laconic jazzbo who could hold his own with the sharpest sidemen, as he did on the definitive 1956 jazz vocal record Hoagy Sings Carmichael. There's just one tune here from that album--a sleepy, smoky rendition of "Rockin' Chair"--as well as an exquisitely offhand rendition of Carmichael's signature tune, "Stardust." But most of the tracks here are short, sweet, borderline novelty-record material which coast by as much on Carmichael's light, dry Midwestern baritone as on his self-effacing, no-sweat songcraft.

Though this collection doesn't even have many of his best songs--"Two Sleepy People," "Skylark," "Georgia on My Mind," "The Nearness of You," or my favorite, "Lazy River"--I'm still happy it was effectively my introduction to this casually towering figure. For in such minor but perfectly executed trifles like "Little Old Lady," "Old Music Master," and "Hong Kong Blues," or such brilliant, oddly constructed curiosities as "Washboard Blues" or "My Resistance Is Low," Carmichael emerges less as a slick Tin Pan Alley tunesmith or too-cool-for-the-room jazzman than as the original Americana singer/songwriter--a figure closer to Hank Williams or Ray Charles, really, than to Frank Loesser or even Johnny Mercer. Carmichael's melodic sensibility is embedded so deeply in blues harmony, and his vocal phrasing and prosody in authentic old-time jazz rhythms, that his songs, even at their most artsy and sophisticated, have the rock-solid integrity and inevitability of folk music.

This is certainly true of the Beiderbeckean leaps and loops of "Stardust," which he elides and rephrases here as only the song's creator could do, and it's especially in evidence in his buoyant rendition of "Riverboat Shuffle." Delivering a lyric that's little more than a commercial for a rockin' nightclub, Carmichael slings a sidelong vocal melody that's essentially a horn part, then plays a clumpy but nimble piano solo that anticipates Nina Simone's contrapuntal flights; it's a dessert I can't get enough of. If cool can be measured partly by comfort with oneself, Carmichael--who can vamp through a dubious tune about a doctor, lawyer, and an Indian chief as blithely as he can whistle through his art-song-quality tunes--may be the coolest cat of all.

Leon Russom SKYLARK - divine!
Adam Liston LOVE Hoagy! Mostly because my dad would sing some of his songs in the shower. Personally own "Hoagy Carmichael: L'Art Vocal, Vol 18" and "Ole Buttermilk Sky". Nice one, Rob.
Douglas Green I'm guessing I have these same recordings - on an Australian album of him I got back when I was there. There's something so odd and haunting about his singing style - it's not "correct" at all - that to me prefigures Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and other purely unique voices. Really amazing. Now go watch "To Have and Have Not," which has a bunch of those songs in it (including as background in some scenes - "Baltimore Oriole" particularly movingly) and him having the coolest combo ever (particularly the newspaper-reading drummer).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

No Frills and Furbelows

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Oliver!, original London cast album. A good number of years before I would hearken to tales of heroic hobbits or fall for four moptops from Liverpool, I wore out a record about a rootless young London urchin welcomed into a rowdy and resourceful hideout of lost boys, and upon a revisit to this beloved cast album--not the first I loved but the first that was truly mine rather than a hand-me-down--I can see that its uniquely English vision of camaraderie, of knockabout band-of-brotherhood, is what attracted me most, and what still gives at least half this score an undiminishable glow of joy.

I'm talking about the sequence of delights that starts with "Consider Yourself," continues with "Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Be Back Soon," stops for two indispensable diversions led by Georgia Brown's roaring Nancy ("It's a Fine Life" and "Oom-Pah-Pah") and wraps up with the sweetly courtly "I'd Do Anything." The rest of the Dickensian drama sounds a bit hit-and-miss to me now--particularly its ugliest strain, Nancy's selfless love for her cartoonishly brutal abuser, Sykes--but the heart of the score still beats strongly with that music-hall esprits de corps. It still sounds to me like one long, often raucous idyll of adorable Cockney mischief and play-acting, and it's a party I feel like I'd still love to go to (as I essentially once did, repeatedly, in my imagination).

Listening again, I can also detect in Oliver! a few bread-crumb pathways to later loves of mine. The premise and setting surely prepped me for the romanticized poverty of Charlie Chaplin's films, while the severe minor key terror of "Boy for Sale" puts me in mind of Sweeney Todd's Beadle. I can also detect a few faint but unmistakeable Brecht/Weill links: The cynicism of the beggars' general Fagin anticipates Threepenny's Peachum, while the modestly chugging chamber-band sound of this London cast recording, which I vastly prefer to the souped-up orchestral arrangements of the film, sounds close in spirit to a familiar Weill template. Certainly the music-hall bounce of my favorite tunes here whetted my appetite for the Doolittles' songs in My Fair Lady and for the likes of Gilbert & Sullivan.

What's more, Lionel Bart's crunchy wordplay, full of exotic words like "larder" and "cadge" and "furbelow," was an early lyrics feast for my eager young mind (and I honestly don't care about the false rhymes and mis-accents I've since regrettably learned to spot). I would add that the Semitic-folk shadings of Fagin's songs pointed me in the direction of Fiddler on the Roof, except that by the time I found Oliver! I was already a Fiddler fan--not that I understood the connection then (and I should pause to note that my discomfort with this character, the fault for which I lay almost entirely at Dickens' feet, is mitigated slightly by this adaptation's sweetly doting take on the old rascal).

I'm not immune to the whole-step heart-tug of "Where Is Love," but even as a kid I found the naked emotional excess of "As Long as He Needs Me" icky. And the way the haunting modal plainsong of "Who Will Buy?" morphs into a bluesy showstopper has sounded increasingly ludicrous to me over the years. But give me those boxy foxtrots and dainty marches sung by scrappy, let's-stick-together moppets, their kvetchy ringleader, and their bawdy den mother any day.

Catherine Trieschmann Miller Of course, as an eight-year-old girl, I loved “As Long as He Needs Me” best.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Sure you did. But how about that choice bit in "Fine Life" in which Nancy sings: "Though you sometimes do come by/The occasional black eye/You can always cover one/'Til he blacks the other one/But you don't dare cry." I now hear "As Long as He Needs Me" as a song-length elaboration of those four awful lines from the fun song.
Catherine Trieschmann Miller That did not register at all when I was eight. It was like watching the PBS broadcast of “Sweeney Todd” and realizing that he murdered people and that he sold pies but not putting two and two together.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Oh God, I literally couldn't watch SWEENEY when I was a kid, I was such a wuss about the blood. I was scandalized. I don't think I even got to the meat pies part. Which reminds of a great quote I heard leaving the London production some years ago: "I knew it was about a guy killing people and a woman making them into meat pies, but I didn't know it was going to be so grim." (Got a chance to quote that directly to the man himself:
Jack Lechner Never read that interview before, Rob -- it's terrific!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Living In and Out of Tune

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Can, Ege Bamyasi. The prog rock I loved as a teen was primly abstruse, pretentiously conceived, tightly arranged, and tight-assedly performed--basically, I received it as it was at least partly intended, as a kind of pseudo-neoclassical music with rock instrumentation. I’ve since discovered more to cherish in vintage Yes than ersatz classicism, as well as enough shades and varieties of so-called “classical” music to complicate any childlike notions I may have once had of its epitomizing “proper” culture exclusively made by and intended for grown-ups, so the misbegotten assumptions underpinning my one-time admiration for the likes of Brain Salad Surgery have more or less dissipated.

Probably one thing that helped clear the fog was this unsettling, infectious, utterly sui generis record from 1972. I’m actually not sure if progressive rock is the appropriate label for Can, the oddball German collective that made it, but when I first fell under its occult spell, in my mid-20s, it felt like a full-frontal assault on all the ponderous, literal-minded, twee prog rock I’d once revered. Here were long jams by mad virtuosos rife with harmonic and sonic and metric complexity that nevertheless sounded dangerous, funky, off-the-cuff, like they could fly apart at any moment. It was as if they’d taken the dark, demimonde vibe of the Doors, whom I’ve always found overrated, and the aggressive art-noise deadpan of the Velvet Underground, whom I love unreservedly despite their limitations as players, and hot-wired them to a smoking rhythm section and an erratic-like-a-fox punk-rock vocalist.

It’s an arresting mix, to say the least; when Can does dreamy psychedelia (“Sing Swan Song,” “Spoon”), there are sharp and sour edges to harsh the buzz; when they rock aggressively (“Pinch,” “Vitamin C”), there’s a surprising spareness and skitteriness that keeps you on your toes; when they do gleeful ’60s pop (“I’m So Green”), it takes some weird, dense tangents. In particular, the drumming of Jaki Liebezeit seems central to the Can effect, among many contenders for the ear’s attention (including variously swirling and piercing feedback and synth effects); on “Pinch,” for instance, his drums sounds somehow backward-tracked, while the busy bass-drum tattoo on “Vitamin C” is handled as matter-of-factly as if it were a bongo fill.

Lots of music, including prog rock, is lazily described as “layered,” but Ege Bamyasi showcases music that sounds piled up from so many found objects, selected nearly randomly and barely premeditated, but then in the moment of performance applied with deadly force and furious, single-minded concentration--pretty much the inverse of most prog rock, in other words.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Intrinsic Sounds of a Master*

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: The Other Chet Atkins. My parents’ record collection was a pretty random assortment of cast albums, moods of Mantovani, Arthur Murray learn-to-dance records, a bare smattering of classical essentials, Firestone Christmas anthologies--by and large an uninspiring lot, even viewed nostalgically. In that middling group, a modest oddity like this made a strong impression, even if it was an ironic title for a household that owned no other country or guitar-picking records; this lilting Spanish-guitar reverie was, to my young ears, the only Chet Atkins. And while I’ve since come to grasp his wider stature and to admire the sophisticated Nashville sound for which he’s justly known, I’m so glad to have first met the plucky Tennessean on this exotic turf, where his attention to detail, singing tone, and sneakily unshowy showmanship seems utterly at home.

Heard again all these years later, the record’s nylon-string warmth still charms, and on at least one occasion proves deeply moving (in the prayerlike simplicity of “The Streets of Laredo”). In assaying a swath of mostly Cuban-derived Latin tunes, with a few tourist diversions (and one Israeli folk tune), Atkins lets the songs’ shape and pace dictate the scale of his arrangements, with a dense gallop for the busy “Delicado” or “Sabrosa” and an ambling trot for “Maria Elena” or “Poinciana.” My favorite as a kid was his spare, strummy, sunny take on “Peanut Vendor,” but this time around, the solo-guitar pieces sounded like the album’s heart, not only “Laredo” but an aching “Marcheta,” a brooding “Siboney,” a hearty "El Relicario," a sweetly unadorned “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.”

If there are traces of Django in the showier pieces’ chord-crawling virtousity, the solo tracks sound homier, even campfirey, and they give the entire effort a dust-blown authenticity. One of the record’s saving graces is that it never really sounds like anything other than a consummate country picker trying his hand at Latin music; but in these quiet, finger-traced moments, the distance between the Tennessee hills and the llanuras dwindles, dancingly, to nothing.

*This is a quote from Jim Reeves' liner notes.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Isn't It Good?

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Rubber Soul. If the mythology of the perfect pop album didn’t start with The Beatles, it might as well have. It’s not just that I can think of precious few LP-record-length pop statements that predate the Fab Four (Sinatra’s Only the Lonely? Sun Sessions? Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music?). What’s crucial is that The Beatles upped the game so precipitously, apotheosized the pop-album-as-coherent-work-of-art so handily, that any prior models are academic, just as countless succeeding exemplars have fallen short or missed the point.

For what made Beatles records cohere, as a revisit to my favorite of their albums reminded me, were not grand plans hatched by a single compositional mastermind a la Pete Townshend or Brian Wilson. No, what made Beatles’ albums hang together--and this is true even of an ostensible “concept album” like the justly overrated Sgt. Pepper’s--was The Beatles themselves, their band-bred hive mind, the creative tension not only between the two main songwriters but also among the no-slouch personalities of all the creators in the room (including, of course, George Martin). They were great pop-album makers because they were consummate pop songsmiths, forgers of three- and four-minute pieces big and strong enough to stand up in bunches together and reflect and reverberate off each other in an integral way, fully formed characters in some larger drama (or comedy). What made The Beatles’ albums special wasn’t that they were secretly writing operas or cantatas or stage musicals in pop drag; they were instead doing something that felt genuinely new, elevating the pop-song-collection form into something greater than the sum of its already great individual parts; and this achievement seems inextricably linked to their collective spirit, their bandness.

What I find most arresting about Rubber Soul is that I can hear each of the band’s constituent elements clearly, sharply, as they reorder and reorient themselves into a gleaming new unit after the previous few years’ disorienting experience of stratospheric stardom, a period when their songs seemed in danger of turning into ads for themselves (indeed, two of their previous three records were film soundtracks, and another, the intriguing Beatles for Sale, was a sort of grab bag). As they later did with their white album, on Rubber Soul they paved their new path in part by looking backward, stripping things back to the bare roots, even if they weren’t, strictly speaking, their own roots. While the opening folk-guitar pluck and country bop of “I’ve Just Seen a Face”* is straight-up skiffle that would have sounded at home on a Liverpool streetcorner in the late 1950s, the album's next salvo, the slithery earworm “Norwegian Wood,” is a brilliant piece of pseudo-Renaissance folk primitivism. It’s not until the third track, “You Won’t See Me,” that we hear an electric guitar or a full drum kit, let alone the double-tracked vocals that had become, to a somewhat confining degree, The Beatles’ sound. But things don’t settle into the familiar; indeed, each song on the first side has a distinctive sonic signature, from the fuzz bass leer of “Think for Yourself” to the jabbing blues bite and rattlesnake hiss of “The Word,” and finally the sleek, ardent “Michelle,” whose two-guitar intro recalls “Seen a Face,” except that we’ve crossed the Channel to France.

If the second side isn’t as fine overall (I’ve always heard “Girl” as Lennon’s competitive response to “Michelle,” as if he said, “I can write a gypsy song, too, but mine will be darker,” only it’s not as good), it does have one of McCartney's definitive sunbursts, "I'm Looking Through You," and it does lead to one of the band’s highest points ever, as if the whole record, indeed their whole career to date, had been leading up to it: You can almost hear curtains part on a wide open stage to make room for the big-hearted, bittersweet soar of “In My Life.” This time in particular, I heard this great anti-nostalgist anthem as a full-band performance, each player’s personal expression fusing into a single larger statement (the classical-piano solo being Martin’s contribution, of course), and each in perfect, unshowy proportion to the other. The song sounds roomy, slightly grand, without sounding grandiose or sacrificing the record’s folky intimacy.

Rubber Soul has nowhere to go after that climax, and the last two songs, “Wait” and “Run for Your Life,” end the collection pleading and seething, respectively. Future Beatles records would have better endings--indeed, great cappers would almost become their specialty--but for most of its running time, this is the record on which I hear the songcraft of the Greatest Band Ever at its clearest, simplest, and most endearing.

*I swear by the American-release track order.

Cinco Paul Is Sgt. Pepper's "justly overrated" or "justly considered overrated"? I personally think it deserves all the plaudits.
Rob Weinert-Kendt It deserves most, I agree, but it's not their dearest record.
Rob Weinert-Kendt By "justly overrated" I meant to suggest that I understand its significance, I get what the fuss is about, I love it to bits...but it is still a bit overrated.
Rob Weinert-Kendt I mean, what I regularly rediscover about "Rubber Soul" is that I overrate it a bit...but what I do love about it, which I tried to explain, is what still makes it my favorite.
Shawn Pogatchnik I award Rubber Soul five Pauls out of a possible five.
Drew Eshelman Hey Rob, Rubber Soul was one of the albums we played during my first psychedelic experience in 1966... It had an indelible effect on me.
David Tobocman I had the epiphany recently that what made The Beatles cohere so well was Ringo's unique drumming. I think I was mentally comparing Paul solo to Beatles stuff. Good points here, Rob. Excellent, ambitious article.
David Tobocman Also my favorite, btw, but I think the American Rubber Soul is far superior.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Exactly, the American song order is much better.