Sunday, December 28, 2014

Surprises and Scares

Today’s formative-album replay: Björk, Post. Björk has always been a worldbuilder as ambitious and meticulous as Tolkien, Whedon, or Punchdrunk; each of her records is a distinctive, immersive sonic landscape to be inhabited as much as heard, almost to a fault. Indeed, I have to admit I’m a few albums behind on her ouevre--I kind of lost the plot after the virtuosic voice orgy Medulla, and indeed have frequently lost my way within many of her more ethereal icecapades. Even this extraordinary collection--now, unbelievably, about to celebrate its 20th birthday--has a few tracks that work less as songs than as mood fugues, which wobble and wander a bit when plucked outside their natural habitat (popping up in Shuffle, in other words).

On this relisten, though, what struck me anew about Post is its dynamic and metric range, from grand bombast to quivering quiet, from explosive, frog-marching club beats to free-time, almost improvisatory musings. It’s a record, in short, as sweeping in scale and as infinitesimally sensitive as Björk’s vocal instrument itself. From the Bonham-worthy drum boom and woozy, electric-eel synth bass of “Army of Me” to the ghostly echo chamber of “Headphones,” from the swaying string swoon of “You’ve Been Flirting Again” to the cagey, clamped-down frenzy of “Enjoy” and “I Miss You,” Post is a house with many mansions. If I had to locate its dark, swarming heart, I’d pick “Isobel,” a jungly fantasia of animist lust with a low, crackling beat covering the floor and a string orchestra throwing up steep walls that Björk’s voice rappels and bungees from with daredevil abandon (“When she does it/She means to”). I would not pick her spirited cover of Betty Hutton’s bipolar romp “It’s Oh So Quiet,” only because, by a weird bit of luck, I had happened upon Hutton’s blazing original a few years earlier on an LP compilation, and found that Björk’s note-for-note copy (really, the charts are identical) didn’t have that much to add.

What "Oh So Quiet" does do, inarguably, is showcase yet another facet of Björk’s genius--the place where her oddball theatricality intersects with Mickey-and-Judy innocence--as if the expansive multiverse of Post needed yet another dimension. But then, while there’s no shortage of whimsy and excess, of mystery and synchronicity, in Björkland, nothing is truly random; when she does it, she means to.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

You Who Know What Love Is

Frederica von Stade sings Cherubino's "Non so piu"; in the recording I grew up on, it was Fiorenza Cossotto
Today’s formative-album replay: Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (highlights, Guilini/Schwarzkopf). Why did any composer, including Mozart, bother to write anything after Figaro? Could they not hear that Western musical drama had reached its peak and nothing--not a thousand Valkyries or Toscas, let alone MacHeaths or Sweeneys--would ever come close? That’s honestly the way I feel after a fresh encounter even with just this exquisite highlights reel, which was my introduction to the work’s capacious, smiling perfection (neck and neck with a quite-good student production at USC, and another a few years later at the LA Opera). Don’t get me wrong, I love all of Mozart’s operas and plenty of others; but there’s something about the confident, supple, utterly sympathetic but unobtrusive voice of the composer here that makes it all sound both as natural as talking and as heightened as, well, opera. That these lusty, flawed, foolish but refreshingly adult characters sing their love, anger, calculation and contrition makes seamless sense here, in a way I find true in very few works of even the best music-theater, because Mozart’s score is so fully invested in every moment; he does not miss a beat, dramaturgical or otherwise. To my ears (and other organs), it seems the most fully, richly dramatized music ever made.

It doesn’t hurt that Da Ponte’s impish libretto is the ideal playground for Mozart’s mature style--for a composer who feels and can express emotion so directly, even overwhelmingly, that he is drawn, seemingly inevitably, to the masks, feints, and layers that conceal and confound honest human relations, all the better to finally, movingly rip them away. The text’s overlapping plots and deceptions, which crucially include a large serving of self-deception, would be merely sex-farcical if they weren’t underlaid and driven by music of such undeniable, passionate empathy, even for the ostensible villain, the Count. The registers of voice here--the way Mozart indicates characters’ class, age, emotional state, indeed psychological essence--are breathtakingly nuanced. As I think of my favorite example, I have to confess a sort of rooting interest: I’m realizing now that what may have finally sold Figaro for me, who after all first encountered it a tender, horny age, was Cherubino, the hormone-addled teenaged messenger, for whom Mozart wrote some of his most sensitive, lovely and funny music; the way the character worshipfully bleats “donne” (women) captures a whole universe of sweet, painful ardor. That Cherubino is a pants role, played most often by young, sexy mezzo sopranos--well, there you have a recipe for a lifelong infatuation. Original Facebook post here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

They Don't Know How To Smile

Today’s formative-album replay: Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. I admired Dylan before I learned to love him; this stiff, transitional record can be blamed for that initial arm’s-length embrace. I don’t recall why but I soberly self-administered this folk medicine before falling hard for the wild mercury brilliance of the likes of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde, and I found its earnest sanctimony, and its unmistakably raw presence, mesmerizing and distancing in roughly equal parts. I’ve since come to hear all of Dylan’s records as provisional documents, snapshots of a restless creative force in motion rather than pristinely realized studio paintings, but this one may be his most makeshift-sounding of all: The record sounds like it starts literally in mid-strum with a dutiful rendition of the title song, and it ends with what was surely the one and only take of a wispy, tossed-off fuck-you, “Restless Farewell,” the last line of which is “I’ll bid farewell and not give a damn.”

Obviously, Dylan always gives a damn about something, but on this album--his third, and his first consisting of entirely original material--his attention seems to be offstage as he shuffles shakily and sourly through a series of lesser protest songs (“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “With God on Our Side”) and renders some more private-themed tunes with a folded-in-on-himself diffidence. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t manage a few flares of infernal intensity, as in the bottomlessly bleak “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” or that a kind of smiling detachment doesn’t perfectly suit a song like the wistful “Boots of Spanish Leather,” or that a bleary, circumspect tone isn’t just right for the sneakily powerful “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” And both the title song and “When the Ship Comes In” are clearly anthems he enjoys, distractedly or not. It’s hard not to notice, though, that both of these are apocalyptic, allegorical, not topical--a register that has always fit him best, with a few finely rendered exceptions (“Hattie Carroll,” “Hurricane,” etc.).

On this listen, I also happened to notice how frequently he gravitates to triple meters. Indeed, that iconic title song is a waltzing sea shanty if it’s anything--one that’s forecasting the storm that would overtake him and his whole generation, though in his case not for long. It would only be a year before Newport, two years before the motorcycle accident, three years and change till he would circle back from the rocky heights to make his most ageless and abiding folk record, John Wesley Harding. Last I checked, though the RPM may be slower, the wheel’s still in spin. Original Facebook post here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Bump It With a Trumpet



Today’s formative-album replay: Gypsy, original cast album. The first words that came to mind as I listened again to this, arguably the greatest of Broadway musicals, were “mania” and “warmth”--in fact, both words came early, during the first few bars of the overture, and recurred often as I revisited the alternately sharp, glinting edges and lush, pillowy corners of this towering but intimate score. Clearly, this unflinching portrait of a heedlessly grasping stage mom and the casualties of her relentless ambition wouldn’t work at all if the music didn’t fully convey both Momma Rose’s nervy, needy drive and the genuine if fleeting fellow feeling, even delight, she can arouse in others, if not herself.

This is all the more striking an achievement given how totally Momma dominates the score; she’s got what I think of as the score’s sturdy tentpoles--“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Rose’s Turn”--as well as a series of songs in which she’s either cajoling or shoving others into line. And though both of her daughters and her would-be soulmate Herbie finally abandon her, none gets a big kiss-off farewell number; the daughters voice all their objections out of her earshot, either wistfully (“Little Lamb”) or teasingly (“If Momma Was Married”). Yes, younger daughter Rose has a kind of triumph in song during her penultimate strip number, but that’s more about her claiming her own place--bringing her mother’s dreams to bittersweet life, in fact--than it is an explicit break from Momma.

Of course, that’s exactly how Momma takes it, as the show inevitably veers back, again, to ask: What’s Momma gonna do now? As a nervous breakdown in song, the unhinged finale “Rose’s Turn”--which lyricist Stephen Sondheim can essentially call his own composition, as he and Jerry Robbins essentially hammered it together from composer Jule Styne's spare parts--has not been topped. Indeed, while Styne more than rose to the occasion, transcending mere tunefulness to delve into Momma’s madness--“Some People” and “Coming Up Roses” in particular are marvels of restless motivic construction and calculated dissonance--what was clearer than ever to me on this listen is how tough and smart the tyro Sondheim’s lyrics are. In “Some People,” for instance, he’s packed in more internal rhymes than should be strictly necessary while still keeping it all within Momma’s brash, ungenteel vernacular (Frank Loesser is the only other lyricist I can think of who ever managed a similar trick, with the title song of Guys and Dolls). And as always in Sondheim’s best work, it’s the incisive drama, not the clever rhymes, that rings out. He would certainly go further and range more widely with his own scores, but I don’t think he ever did better. Original Facebook post here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Comedian, Chameleon, Corinthian and Caricature

Today’s formative-album replay: David Bowie, Hunky Dory. Talk about changes. The unique, peripatetic four-decade musical/theatrical career of David Robert Jones has cycled through countless phases, dispensations, styles, and personae, and it has hardly been a linear path from psychedelic folk/pop to glam rock to whatever-you-call-the-Eno-period to neo-soul and beyond. Since I happened to have my first Bowie immersion well after his New Romantic phase (as I recounted before, my conversion text was the early-mid-period live album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars), I was less jarringly aware of just how strange his early-career arc really was, how complete the breaks between periods were--and yet how protean even within those self-identified constraints he could be.

Case in point, this brilliant, brittle, unaccountably mature little record from 1971, sandwiched surprisingly between the blues-rock swoon of The Man Who Sold the World and the galactic-rock breakthrough of The Rise of Fall of Ziggy Stardust etc. How did the guy who’d just swung "The Width of a Circle" and was about to strut to "Suffragette City" make mental and musical space for a record of mostly showtuney ditties--theatrical songs for plays not written? Many sound like throwbacks to his quirky, Anthony Newley-meets-Jacques-Brel early work, but others offer clear templates for the thematic concerns, if not quite the sound, of the heavy-breathing concept albums that were soon to come. And as much as I cherish the sleazy crunch and sweaty urgency of his deepest hard-rock cuts, I've always personally favored the limber, companionable sound of Hunky Dory.

Indeed, it was startling on this relisten to be reminded how sparse and intimate it all sounds, particularly in the mostly untreated vocals. It moves from the cocktail piano boogie/blues of its first few tracks  ("Changes," "Pretty Things/Eight Line Poem") through the cinematic “Life on Mars,” then marches into the solemn guitar strum of the first of a matching pair of side-enders, the sweeping “Quicksand,” which sounds like a to-date career summation, a distillation of Dylan, Brel, and Ray Davies into something unmistakably Bowie. By the time the record reaches “The Bewlay Brothers,” the other strummy side-ender, the chrysalis has sloughed off and a confident new voice is speaking loud and dark and clear.

In between are a clutch of irresistible oddities and novelties--what sounded to me even in my dimly enlightened days like the definitive gay-adoption anthem, “Kooks,” as well as the slightly half-hearted hippie rag “Fill Your Heart”; and a pair of fellow-icon callouts, the deeply strange and mesmerizing “Andy Warhol” (is there any other song in Bowie’s catalog, or anyone’s, that sounds quite like this weird gypsy-guitar singalong?), and the endearingly bold direct address (but not slavish imitation) of “Song for Bob Dylan.”

I might trade the whole record, though, for the sleek, funny, gritty “Queen Bitch,” a deceptively breezy glam snit that is among my favorite-sounding rock songs ever, from its acoustic-alongside-electric guitar to its laughing, talk-singing histrionics, which suggest Lou Reed on uppers. Bowie would soon chase grander ambitions, but to me he reached a career high point with "Queen Bitch's" climax of pique, tunelessly spit at a romantic rival: “Oh God, I could do better than that!” No, he couldn’t.


Original Facebook post here.