Friday, June 23, 2017

Causally Connectible

Today’s formative-album replay: The Police Synchronicity. Oh, how I came to despise this record, largely thanks to a freshman dorm roommate who owned and played to a nub a total of three CDs (the other two were the Cars' Heartbeat City and a collection of Sousa marches, I kid you not). By then I had already outgrown this ubiquitous 1983 megahit, but having it pounded further into my ears throughout the fall of 1986 effectively killed its appeal for me, even one song I'd call a favorite, "Synchronicity II."

Surely more than enough time has passed to earn it a fresh listen. And while I still can't rank this, the Police's final album, any higher than their fourth best (after the first three), this replay helped me recover some strong impressions, if not quite my first. For one: It hangs together, sound-wise, remarkably well, from the chirpy ringtone loop of the sloganeering opener (“Synchronicity I”) to the chiming, artfully out-of-tune jazz jangle of the cynical closer (“Murder by Numbers”*). Also: As with even the Police’s worst songs (there aren’t that many), it’s all designed and played at such a high level of craft that it’s hard not to admire.

But let’s just name it: If Ghost in the Machine is the record where frontman Sting began his self-styled transformation into pop philosopher-king, Synchronicity is the one in which he fully matriculated to the priesthood of his own mind, where every song is a sermon or a book report. This is also the record which banished every last vestige of faux-Caribbean sunlight from the band’s sound, aiming instead squarely for an MOR pop/rock pocket that reaches its nadir with the interminable Tantric shimmer of “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” (Even the one arguably tropical-ish number, “Walking in Your Footsteps,” feels continents away from the dub stomp of “Walking on the Moon.”)

And yet: Even in mainstream mode the Police can still pack an odd, astringent punch, with Sting’s searing whinge of a voice and darting bass intersecting with Andy Summers’s artfully unlikely, unobtrusive guitar lines over the alert, one-step-ahead crackle of Stewart Copeland’s drums. Their idiosyncratic sound-meld may find its apotheosis in “King of Pain,” in which Sting’s most over-reaching lyric miraculously sticks the landing, I think in large part due to the song’s alternately sparse and surging arrangement, as it bursts from the stark modal chant of the verse into the major-key splash of the chorus. It almost sounds like Sting may be laughing at himself; either way he's definitely laughing.

The other high point, the full-on rockestral horror of “Synchronicity II,” features another ambitious lyric with a layered, three-dimensional musical arrangement to match. We almost don’t notice, as the song brings its cauldron of dread and suspense to a delicious boil, that it's not about synchronicity at all but another of Jung’s pet theories, the “shadow” that acts out our repressed fantasies. Of course, it’s always a mistake to take pop music as scholarship or scripture, even--or especially--when its makers conceive it to be so. What’s still devilishly seductive about much of this record, for all its flaws (hello, “Mother”), is that no matter how heady or heavy its frontman’s literary intentions, Sting and co. retained the chops to defy the gravity of pretension with lean, leaping pop.

*An avid fan has pointed out that this was not the final track on vinyl, which was "Tea in the Sahara," but was a "bonus" on cassette and CD. The latter were the only way I ever consumed the album. I think the point about the consistency of the sound stands either way.

Previous Police replay: Regatta de Blanc.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Eyes Hear Something

Today’s formative-album replay: Teresa Stratas, The Unknown Kurt Weill. Teresa Stratas’s throaty soprano doesn’t just convey character; on this striking collection of lieder by the 20th century’s greatest composer, her voice is a character, embodying the intimate dramas, bleak poetry, and protest dioramas conjured by a series of lyricists ranging from Maurice Magre to Oscar Hammerstein, all strutting and fretting on the starkly lit stage set by Weill’s music. This endlessly expressive voice-character cajoles, brays, insinuates, exults, resigns, such that you don’t need the lyrics translated to understand intuitively what’s going on. The downcast glow of “Nanna’s Lied” evokes paradoxical nostalgia for an ugly past even before you know it’s a wizened sex worker’s lament; the bittersweet tango of “Muschel von Margate” bespeaks a mounting outrage, fitting for a song that begins on a quaint seaside boardwalk and ends up as an indictment of blood-for-oil petro-imperialism. We are witness to wrenching breakups and alternately bleak or glittering cityscapes; there’s a Dada caper (“Klops Lied”), a utopian prayer (“Youkali”), a sneering Nazi parody (“Schickelgruber”), and a more sober warning about same (“Und was bekam des soldaten weib”). Rosie the Riveter even makes an appearance (“Buddy on the Nightshift”).

Perhaps the song that best sums up the record’s mercurial emotional verite is “Der Aschiedsbrief,” the scribbled diary entry (the lyric is by Erich Kästner) of a jilted lover, whose alternating bouts of pique, curiosity, anger, and nonchalance are mirrored perfectly in Weill’s springy, waltzing major-minor chords and meandering melody, and in Stratas’s heightened-conversational delivery. Liltingly gorgeous and smilingly equivocating, it's the sound of someone thinking out loud to themselves.

The whole thing is a kind of scrapbook that way, though that makes it seem too desultory; for all the angular rises and falls of Weill's music and Stratas’s eerily symbiotic rendering of it--I’m tempted to call it her identification with it--there is a consistent if luxuriously rubato heartbeat to the record. Though she would later do a lavish orchestral album of (slightly) better known Weill tunes, this 1981 piano-and-voice record--essentially a trove of barely heard trunk songs spanning the years 1925 to 1944 which Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, wisely entrusted to Stratas--makes the case for them as canon alongside the composer’s theatrical masterworks. Seldom has the human voice sounded so beautifully, complicatedly human.

Previous Weill replays: Die Dreigroschenoper, The Songs of Kurt Weill.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Strength of Its Impurity

Today's formative-album replay: Indigo Girls. This wasn't the record that led me to buy a Martin dreadnought and haunt the strummy coffeehouse open mics of '90s-era L.A., but when I did eventually enter that world I recognized much of its shaggy, self-enclosed earnestness as having been at least partly created by this epochal neo-folk document from 1989 (technically the band’s second full-length album, but their major-label debut). Even self-styled young troubadours who’d never heard the Indigo Girls (or claimed not to) owed them an implicit debt every time they clapped on a capo and plodded through a journal entry set to a few chords on a 12-string.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers may have been easy to imitate--and parody--but on this replay, I both relished anew the chewy granola substance of the record’s sound and mostly admired the guileless integrity of its hippie Puritanism, even as many lyrics prompted fresh eyerolls (“Numbness from a scepter’s wound”? Okay). As ever, I felt relief when they relax from buttoned-up folk monks into convincingly loose folk rockers, on “Tried To Be True” (with members R.E.M. as a crack session band) and “Land of Canaan.”

There’s subtle, supportive production all around (and the indelible appearance of Michael Stipe, emerging from a dark corner of "Kid Fears" like a fairy-tale troll), but what seals the deal for any vocal-fronted group, whether it’s Take 6 or Simon and Garfunkel, is the blend of pipes. And centerstage on Indigo Girls is that infectious refracted harmony, Ray’s rasp fused to Saliers’ warble as a single indivisible, inimitable instrument. Indeed, it’s something very few of their coffeehouse copycats even bothered to try; most stood solemnly, penitently, offering the world just their voice and guitar (harmonica rack optional).

The Indigos took solo moments too, and in these Ray’s husky rock-star tenor has always had the edge for me over Saliers’s soft soprano bleat--and not just because a friend of mine and theirs from Georgia memorably impressed me with an early version of "Blood and Fire" on her little car stereo on a warm college night in 1988, assuring me, “They’re going to be big.” They were.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Midnight Fade Away

Today's formative-album replay: Randy Newman, Ragtime [Music From the Motion Picture]. He's since grown into a reasonably accomplished film composer, but Randy Newman's first major stab at it, in 1981, was a decidedly mixed bag. Charged with aping fin-de-siecle period music for Milos Forman's uneven film of E.L. Doctorow's novel, Hollywood's resident white bluesman cobbled together a grab bag of rolling rags, starchy marches, music box novelties, prim minuets, and occasionally rip-roaring overtures ("Clef Club 1" and "2".) And unlike, say, Marvin Hamlisch with The Sting or Henry Mancini with pretty much everything, Newman didn't shape his tunes into standalone pieces for this soundtrack record, which makes it a lopsided listen at best. Along with the variable period sampler there's a middling song demo featuring his froggy voice and thumping foot pedal ("Change Your Ways"), and what sounds like a slapped together highlight reel of score cues ("Denouement").

On the other hand, tunesmiths gonna tune: The title theme and its vocal iteration, "One More Hour," add up to as great a song as the man has ever written, a heart-tugging carousel waltz Jerome Kern would have been proud to put his name on. Forget bars: The full melody consists of just 32 notes, most of them a full measure long, and its lyric is a mere 25 words (or 18, if you don't count a final repetition). It's a work of monumental, exquisitely sculpted simplicity, in other words, and in Jennifer Warnes' gently quavering vocal rendition the song evokes a statuary angel--the Bethesda Fountain, say--under whose wide wings whole worlds of feeling swell and rise. Newman may never have developed the range to muster longform narrative or theatrical music (despite some valiant efforts), but few have matched him in songcraft. Another way to put it: I don't think he could have written the brilliant score for the 1997's Ragtime musical, but great as that score is, there's no single song in it as heart-piercingly good as "One More Hour."

Previous Randy Newman replay: 12 Songs.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Can't I Sing It Too?

Today’s formative-album replay: Ragtime: The Musical (Studio Cast Recording). What are musicals for? I don't just mean what purpose this signature American art form--arguably the American art form--serves but what it stands for. I’d argue that with its hybrid roots in minstrelsy, operetta, Yiddishkeit, and Americana, the musical as we know it stands for the idea of America itself, in all its idealism and tragedy, bounty and perfidy. From Show Boat to Hamilton, the American musical at its most ambitious (and occasionally pretentious, sure) has taken as its implicit or explicit subject the founding (Oklahoma!, 1776) and the foundering (Parade, Assassins) of our nation. (I’d say this is even true when the setting is Anatevka or feudal Japan, though that may be an argument for another day.)

No musical in the canon epitomizes the full scope of the form and its implications more definitively than Ragtime, the brilliant distillation of E.L. Doctorow’s multivocal novel that had its U.S. premiere exactly 20 years ago today at the Shubert Theatre in West L.A. (before later opening with a separate cast on Broadway). In fact it’s almost too on the nose: The panoramic turn-of-the-century story of a black pianist, a poor Jewish immigrant, and a fracturing WASP family, with assorted showbiz figures and captains of industry thrown in for good measure, both cries out to be musicalized and daunts the palate with surfeit. That may be why, as much as I happily binged on that L.A. production and this early studio cast album (which I played more faithfully than the later 2-disc Broadway rendition), I faintly dreaded this replay, as I have a few other records I feared I’d loved not wisely but too well.

I need not have worried. The genius of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s songs, framed by Terrence McNally’s book, lies in how well and consistently they hit a difficult musical theatre sweet spot: embracing both the big, simple, seemingly obvious ideas and layering in complicated dramatic cross-currents that draw us in and drive the story forward. It’s there from the start, in the title metaphor of a musical collision that will make a decisive tear in the national fabric, for both better and worse (remember that George M. Cohan’s original title was “Grand Old Rag”). There are more bracing juxtapositions to come, all containing both promise and payoff: The linking of Coalhouse’s eligible-bachelor manhood to car ownership in “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “Henry Ford” (which in turn touches on themes of an industrial revolution against labor) presages the song that broadens this connection into the Pyhrric anthem “Wheels of a Dream.” The surging exchange of idealism and cynicism in “He Wanted to Say” speaks volumes about the divide between liberal wishfulness and revolutionary radicalism, and the final impotence of both. Even more straightforwardly focused songs like “The Night That Goldman Spoke” or “Your Daddy’s Son,” or crackerjack diversions like “What a Game,” travel so far in just a few minutes it’s dizzying. (One reason I can never play cast albums as background music.)

It’s a fair criticism that the score and show are marbled with a streak of deadly earnestness--there may be a few too many broad-shouldered power ballads making Big Statements, a few too many signposted Moments of Significance (“Two men meeting!”), a problem especially forefronted in the so-so 2009 Broadway revival. For what it's worth, I’ve also never been very fond of either of Tateh’s twinkly solos (“Gliding,” “Buffalo Nickel”). For every quibble, though, there are several more beats that land with a gracefully calibrated punch, like the quietly glorious “New Music,” in which the implications of the title's “music of something beginning”--i.e., it will also mean that something must end--play out on an intimate, heartbreaking scale. This is the show’s tricky signature move: both glancing nostalgically back and unflinchingly forward, nowhere better (as Rachel Shukert points out) than in the feminist ballad “Back to Before.”

It helps that Flaherty and Ahrens also work in less rock-ribbed registers, as in the Kander & Ebb-esque “Crime of the Century” or a rueful outtake I cherish, “The Show Biz”; and there are some entirely appropriate echoes of two great musical monsters, Gypsy and Sweeney, in “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy.” I've been more mixed on this writing team’s output since, but with Ragtime they siezed the opportunity of a lifetime and made more than the most of it. They captured a spinning American century in a big, swirling bottle, and I'll be damned if it still doesn't go down like champagne.

Previous cast album replays: Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Pacific Overtures, Oliver!.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Baby for Me*

Today’s formative-album replay: The Heartbeat of Soweto. Paul Simon may have been hooked by the doo-wop echoes he heard in South African township jive, but what first gripped my imagination in this extraordinary collection--which I sought out entirely thanks to the appropriative ambassadorship of Graceland, though these are not the specific songs or bands that inspired Simon, by most accounts--was the guitar sound. I’m not even sure I had much firsthand acquaintance with the six-string when I first heard the chiming arpeggios of Thomas Chauke’s “Nwana Wamina” that open this record like a kind of spindly fanfare, but it’s as if my fingers were immediately able to feel the high-wire walk up the neck of the guitar, and somehow that unmistakeable feeling of stretching, plucking, and teetering was part of the meaning of the music for me. It opened up new possibilities of hearing, cleared out new corners of my ears, and directly inspired this song of mine. There was much else to relish and dig into here--chiefly and relatedly, the way this music seems to make familiar three-chord pop/rock harmonies jump and jolt in fresh, disarming ways, which is another way of describing the attraction it apparently held for Simon--but the thing that struck me then, and hit me again on this replay, is the sense that, even amid a chorus of forefronted human voices, the guitar is the lead singer here.

Not all of the guitar parts ring out like Chauke’s piercing electric, but they have a distinctive flavor throughout, a major-key effusiveness, even when smeared with the grit of distortion, that I’ve since clocked as a cousin of West African high life. There’s also a prickly, harp-like instrument I can’t identify thrumming spikily through many of these tunes, and a weird, whistling flute (on two tunes by M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters), alongside the familiar wheeze of accordion, click of drums, and snap of bass. The accordion is a key reference point, as it was for Simon, because even when it’s not present, the songs all seem to share the alternating, circular quality of breath. This can occasionally be maddening; on a song like Armando Bila Chijumane's “Kamakhalawana,” the short, repetitive phrases of vocals and harp made me feel trapped in a spin cycle, like a playing card stuck in the spokes of a bicycle tire. Others, though, like Amaswazi Emvelo's "Jabula Mfana," have an irresistible, leap-frogging, back-and-forth tug.

Another binary way I heard these songs this time: as a series of interlaced call-and-response pairings, between lead vocalist and chorus, between female and male choruses (two tracks by Mlokothawa), between springy bass and prickly guitar, between flute and accordion. And though the vocals--sung in a variety of South African languages and switching off among unison chants, sharp-edged harmonies, honks and rasps and bleats and wails--still aren’t my favorite thing about this music (later supplemented by this indispensable collection), they remain as novel and striking as the singing guitar that served as my siren into these whirlpools.

*Best I can tell, this is the translation of the Tsonga title "Nwana Wamina."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Talking Through the Gloom

Today’s formative-album replay: David Bowie Low. This album seems to have been designed to prove that, in much the same way Bowie is most himself in alien drag, his music may be more personally expressive the more he appears to blend into its scenery. Not only are more than half of Low’s songs ostensibly instrumentals, but the vocals Bowie does contribute are largely tuneless, garbled, diffident, or uncharacteristically delicate, and even in the songs that do have vocals the instruments do most of the musical heavy lifting.

And yet, even without his lyrics and his camp baritone there to spell it out for us, the free-floating anguish and anomie conveyed by this record are almost overpowering. They start spilling out from the opening ooze of “Speed of Life,” which fades up into a world-weary strut; the mood is sour but the sound is rich, skidding and sliding in big muddy puddles. The next two songs, “Breaking Glass” and “What in the World” are terse, clenched, and sickly, yet also strangely vigorous, St. Vitus dances in a psych ward. The clouds part for the masterful, circumspect “Sound and Vision,” which relaxes into a real groove long enough to achieve beatific lift-off over a subtle Bo Diddley beat (I’ll just pause to note that since Bowie’s death, this song’s paradoxical mystery and clarity have acquired a prayerlike aspect for me--perhaps because I arranged it as a memorial tribute for my church band and invited Donny McCaslin to play along). But then it’s back to the self-defeating loop of despair and irresolution with “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and the surprisingly grim, anxious “Be My Wife,” both of which let the band do most of the (hesitant, circular) talking. The instrumental that closes the first side, “New Career in a New Town,” may be the record’s sunniest respite, with the irresistible twist of repeatedly diving over the edge of a tenuous beat into a big, splashing jam.

Then, of course, there’s Side Two, the Eno ambience suite, which I’ve always admired more than loved, even as I’ve also always recognized it as an essential part of Low’s strange, hypnotic alchemy, and hence never conceive of skipping after the rattled clatter of Side One. This otherworldly synth soundscape has mostly aged well--elephant roars, woozy theremin, Reich-ian marimbas, and all--but I still warm most eagerly to the seductive Arctic fog of “Subterraneans,” not least for its climactic bout of speaking-in-tongues by Bowie, in possibly his most melodic vocal on the record. By the end of a full listen to this remarkable, mood-altering record I typically feel a bit lost, adrift--low, even. All that’s left to do: sit right down and wait for the gift.

Previous Bowie replays: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Hunky Dory. Other Bowie-related posts here and here.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Listen to the Mockingbird

Today’s formative-album replay: The Sting: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. My parents heartily regretted taking me to this movie when I was 5 years old, less for its labyrinthine hustlers’ plot than for the indelible scene in which the fetching brunette with whom Robert Redford has just had a casual one-night stand with gets plugged in the forehead by a gloved assassin on the street the next morning. They didn’t regret buying this soundtrack album, though, which more than any single record may be credited with my youthful wish for a piano, granted just a few years later (a used Baldwin, price tag: $1,000). I didn’t immediately take up ragtime on that old 88, as my piano teacher would only teach classical music; it wasn’t until many years later, in high school, that I taught myself Scott Joplin’s “Solace,” which remains the only instrumental piano piece I can still play through by memory.

This revisit was a homecoming, in other words, to a soundscape as integral to my childhood as the summer whine of cicadas. And it's a convivial place to return to: Like Henry Mancini’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack, this soundtrack is digestible as a collection of complete tunes rather than chopped-up bits of score--diegetic music in spirit, if not in practice (I don’t recall how the songs were used in the film). As a child, of course, I didn’t register the inspired anachronism of using vintage ragtime in a Jazz Age setting; it was all “old time” music to me. Now, even as I can parse the differences among the Joplin originals, Marvin Hamlisch’s Sousa-fied orchestrations of same, and assorted dips into burlesque, Big Band, and hot-club jazz, the whole thing hangs together as tightly as a shave-and-a-haircut cadence.

The record has two basic modes, ebullient and elegiac, of which I’m roughly equally enamored. I’ll grant that the irrepressible brightness of some of the uptempo tunes--“Pineapple Rag,” “Easy Winners”--can edge into a glare, and the sugary simplicity of the album’s biggest hit, “The Entertainer,” wore out its welcome for me decades ago. That Joplin hit, though, does sit neatly on the cusp of the album’s divided weepy/cheeky spirit, and it’s accordingly mined for its rubato pathos as much as its chin-up pluck. Topping the wistful side of the ledger, of course, is “Solace,” a sad tango aching with apoggiaturas and suffused with longing--Chopin by way of Chaplin. I’d forgotten how wittily Hamlisch breaks that tune's bones and grinds them into the whimpering hangover variation, “Luther”; woodwinds have never sounded so winded. And I was especially happy to revisit “Little Sister,” a perfect bon-bon featuring some jazzy pirouettes by fiddler Bobby Bruce which surely paved my way to Reinhardt/Grappelli swing. Clearly I have to credit The Sting with more than simply pointing me to the keyboard.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Stray Cat Sings Back

Today’s formative-album replay: Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual. Surely I can’t be the only listener who thought that of the two pop divas who released debut albums in 1983, Madonna was a flash in the pan but Cyndi--she was the artist of substance with real staying power. This long-overdue revisit to her first record gives me little reason to revise that personal preference, even as it’s clear why, next to the zeitgeist-surfing Ms. Ciccone, Lauper’s pixie-with-moxie shtick made her seem, after her initial splash of fame, like a novelty act, cousin to Thomas Dolby’s mad professor. She may even have been ahead of her time, or at least my time: What struck me anew when I double-checked the date of this release is how much Lauper’s cobbled-together Betty Boop/thrift shop/DayGlo-Goth aesthetic must have softened me up for things like the retro mania of Pee-Wee Herman, the warped classicism of Tim Burton, and the vocal abandon of Bjork. And I’m pretty sure her okay cover of “When You Were Mine” was my introduction to Prince.

Other, less obvious influences I clocked on this listen: The gutsy “Money Changes Everything” sounds a bit like a Springsteen outtake as sung by Patti Smith’s little sister, and a few of the mid-tempo rockers has distinctly Police-like skitter. But many of the album’s signature tracks pair rubbery New Wave synth/organ sounds with Lauper’s husky yelp over songs with 1950s doo-wop architecture, particularly the ebullient feminist-ish anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “She-Bop,” her heavy-breathing minor-key ode to masturbation, as well as the endearingly bonkers album closers “I’ll Kiss You” and “Yeah Yeah.”

In a class all their own are a pair of lovely ballads, which offer a study in contrasts: Against the deathless “Time After Time,” with its weary verse lifting irrestistibly into the hold-tight harmony of the chorus, Jules Shear’s pristine “All Through the Night” offers hearts-of-space synth arpeggios and too-cute metaphors. The picture of faithfulness painted in “Time” (who doesn’t listen with anticipation for Lauper to break from the final chorus line to belt “I will be waiting”?) towers over “Night’s” hollow tautology: “Until it ends, there is no end.” Lauper’s pop moment may have been similarly short-lived, but it was a moment, all right, and our attention was richly rewarded.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

I Believe That You Believe

Today’s formative-album replay: T-Bone Burnett. Long before he became Hollywood’s chief prospector of musical Americana and some time after he was Dylan’s Bible buddy--but the same year he produced Elvis Costello’s breakthrough first record minus the Attractions, King of America--Joseph Henry Burnett released this unassuming collection of gentlemanly acoustic country, steeped in a sort of stoical anguish but seasoned with smiling warmth. Though the covers here are stronger than Burnett’s originals, apart from his oracular opener, “River of Love,” the whole thing is knit together by strings--fiddle, guitar, Jerry Douglas’s singing dobro--into a sturdy cushion for Burnett’s modestly soulful vocals (with harmonies from David Hidalgo and Billy Swan). And the whole effort, recorded without overdubs directly to two-track in a four-day stretch, feels inspired and overseen by the same ageless muse behind such perfect snapshots as Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, Roberta Flack’s First Take, or John Hiatt’s Bring the Family.

The key songs here take love as a title subject, and they all crop up early on the record's first side, with an opening contrast that struck me anew on this listen: The stark, saturnine “River of Love” makes divine love sound like a hard lesson, followed by a buoyant cover of Elmer Laird’s “Poison Love” that makes the earthly kind sound like an irresistible, almost redemptive vice. It’s the old Hank Williams Saturday-night-and-Sunday-morning routine in reverse, while the other “love” song on Side 1, “No Love at All” is straight-up country heartbreak distilled to a bittersweet syrup.

Other songs range within this continuum, from wistful Gram Parsons-esque laments (“Shake Yourself Loose,” “I Remember”) to a Buddy Hollyish ode (“Oh No”) and another severe prayer (“Little Darling”). Off this grid are Bob Neuwirth’s Gothic norteña “Annabelle Lee,” in which Poe waltzes with Faulkner in an ether dream, and an indifferent cover of Tom Waits’s elusive “Time.” The closer is also a waltz, co-written by Burnett, Swan, and Neuwirth: “You were the bird that I held in my hand/Till I learned to fly on my own,” they sing, fusing the spiritual and the personal as the key ascends aspirationally from verse to chorus and the album takes wing into a high lonesome sunset. As much as I admire T-Bone’s work with soul brother Elvis Costello and one-time wife Leslie/Sam Phillips, this eponymous record looms quietly as a kind of ur-text of neo-folk authenticity.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Light Had Changed

Today’s formative-album replay: The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We think of world-building as something narrative artists do, whether it's Whedon, Tolkien, or Punchdrunk. But music makes worlds too, both dimensional and durational. This is what I might humbly add to the gallons of ink spilled about this epochal record on its 50th birthday: that among its legacies is that it's essentially a work of musical theatre, albeit a revue staged in the virtual space of our minds. Just as a good musical teaches us how to hear it or a good piece of genre fiction sets up the rules and expectations of its imaginary universe, Sgt Pepper's turns on the vaudeville footlights before we even hear a note, briefly evoking the pre-curtain anticipation that is one of theatregoing's most addictive drugs, then running through the pointedly anonymous barker’s-intro number of the title before turning the spotlight on the band's most indifferent singer for a self-effacing two-step. In case that squirting-flower gag hasn't clued us in, the next song literally orders us to picture ourselves in a sort of Magritte fever dream, and to look out for a mirage-like girl who may or may not be the same bird aloft in the diamond-studded sky of the chorus. The roar of the greasepaint could hardly be louder, the smell of the crowd more pungent.

Here’s the thing, though: Like the best illusionists, who give us tantalizing glimpses of the tricks of their trade to make us feel in on the joke, all the better to dazzle us, the Beatles don’t hide the seams in the stitching here, musically speaking. To a degree unheard on any of their previous records, they do pump-priming modulations, full-stop splices between discrete sections (“Lucy,” “Day in the Life,” “Good Morning”), winking “ta-da” cadences (“Mr. Kite”), and a Rolodex of key signatures that, if not precisely exotic, won’t sit still, scaling up and down according to their own intuitive logic. (On this last subject I will just add with satisfaction that the opener and closer both start in G and move to E; and, as if to both smooth and heighten the shock of the record’s most jarring transition, the raga haze of “Within You Without You” rolls into the handlebar-moustache jaunt of “When I’m 64” without leaving the key of C#).

The lyrics, of course, have all but abandoned the first person, or at least the presumably personal voice of pop music’s unblinking “I,” itself an unacknowledged artifice. Even the record's most straightforward statement, "Getting Better," has an otherworldly, nervy frisson in this shape-shifting context. The paradoxical result of the album's self-consciously storytelling, scene-setting experiments is a new freedom to go even deeper into subjective experience, psychedelic and otherwise. This may be the album's most durable breakthrough: The Beatles went through the stage door in Sgt. Pepper’s and came out more themselves than ever.

Previous Beatles replays: Rubber Soul, Hey Jude.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Beauty in Tears

Today’s formative-album replay: Joemy Wilson Carolan’s Cup. Some music is so fused to specific moments in our lives that it can scarce float free of those original bonds. It might even be counted a measure of a music’s weakness that it can’t transcend the circumstances of our first hearing, as if it were only an accident of timing that we came to love it and it's now of no use but as a cheap nostalgia trigger.

That kind of conditional love would apply to many a youthful pop fixation (cf. Little River Band), and you’d think it would also be the fate of this pretty collection of hammered-dulcimer Celtic folk, which my mom brought home from a performance by the artist herself at the Tempe Art Fair during my last summer between high school and college, and which I played on my bedside turntable literally every night of that fleeting, liminal season as I drifted off to sleep. But in fact this record holds up remarkably well, as it happens to be a sampler of tunes attributed to Turlough O'Carolan, a blind harpist who schlepped his axe around Ireland at the turn of the 18th century, and whose music as showcased here hits a happy medium between earthy folk and baroque filigree, between pub and parlor. As someone with a limited stomach for the relentless major-key noodling of much of what passes for Celtic music (unless it’s played by the Pogues), I relish both the restraint of the arrangements and the meandering nuances of these deceptively simple-sounding but limber, long-lined melodies. The hammered dulcimer itself is an odd, circumscribed, spidery instrument that sounds a bit like a unstrung harpischord, but Wilson makes its metallic thrumming dance and sing, even when she recedes behind flute or violin leads, in charts that range from Brandenburg-esque burbling to mournful plainsong.

So yes: I may cling to this record in part for its indelible imprint both as an artifact of a pivotal summer and as a gift from my late mother. It was without question a self-consciously memory-making time: Like the slackers of This Is Our Youth, I was achingly aware of both the ephemerality of that time and the eternal singularity of it as it passed. But just as I recall those transitional months more as a time of lasting, skin-shedding growth for me than a lamentable folly I’m glad to have left behind, this record is a talisman I wear without shame--a Cup that runneth over its initial serving.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ears That Are Still

Today’s formative-album replay: R.E.M. Murmur. I can thank alphabetical luck for placing Brad Jones’s locker next to mine my sophomore year in high school, but I have to thank Brad himself for two distinct but related gifts: First, that one day he handed me a cassette with R.E.M.’s first two albums on either side, and second--possibly even more important--that he didn’t bother with labels. I’m sure I knew that the records were called Murmur and Reckoning, and those titles may have been written on the cassette case fold, but song names weren’t on offer, nor was I perfectly sure which side of the tape held which album.

I had a pretty good hunch, though, which collection sounded more like a murmur (and which like a reckoning). With a clarity of memory I have about few other first musical exposures, I vividly recall the afternoon I stood in my sunlit Arizona bedroom, parents nowhere nearby, and first blasted through the swirling guitars, the cracking snare, the venturesome bass, and those incantatory vocals and impenetrable lyrics. I can even mark the moment of intoxication, early in the first song I would soon figure out was called “Radio Free Europe,” when the chord lifts a full step up from E to F#7 (in a dreamy sus4 voicing), while Michael Stipe’s vocal soars up a tritone (from E to A#) to meet it over the lyric that always sounded to me like “Train” (but is apparently “Raving”?).

The harmonic and atmospheric intrigue only thickened with the stark layers of a song I could tell was called “Pilgrimage” (notice how even the stray words that are intelligible are perversely pronounced, i.e., “Pil-grim-ADGE”) and the downbeat wind-up patterns of a song that sounded like it was called “Logic” (but in fact is titled “Laughing”). By the time the stately, more recognizably human “Talk About the Passion” broke out the 12-string, I felt back on solid folk-rock ground, though there were more disorientations to come, from the woozy, indeterminate slow dance “Perfect Circle” to the unsettling snakepit of “9-9.”

On this replay I was especially struck by two things: One, how strong Side 2 is, anchored by a pair of disarmingly straightahead, almost-country deep cuts, “Sitting Still” and “Shaking Through,” and effectively bookended by the bipolar pop primitivism of “Catapult” and the warm, sing-songy embrace of “We Walk”; the tense, irresolute closer “West of the Fields” seems almost like an encore, or an escape. There’s a reason the initial trance didn’t wear off. And two: The harmonic ambition promised by that floating F#7 chord is delivered on throughout in a way, honestly, no other R.E.M. record has ever quite matched for me (save possibly Fables of the Reconstruction). I haven’t broken down all these songs on guitar or piano, so I can’t say for sure that they’re more sophisticated than the bulk of what followed. I do know, though, that atmospherics and indirection can only take me so far, and that this record’s durable substance, which first hit me on a literally preverbal level, retains what power it has on the strength of sounds that need no introduction.

Previous R.E.M. replay: Document.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Crossing You in Style

Today's formative-album replay: Henry Mancini Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Like a few Kubrick soundtracks I had in heavy rotation long before I saw the films they were made for, I happened upon this sweet cocktail of a record in my parents’ slim LP collection as a child and eagerly guzzled down its orchestral big band sounds like so many Shirley Temples. That I finally saw and became besotted with the Blake Edwards film during a collegiate crush on vintage Audrey Hepburn gave this music fresh purchase on my imagination (as did the excellent Mancini tribute album Shots in the Dark). And now that I’ve soured considerably on the movie’s brittle whimsy, I’ve come full circle back to this record’s durable charms: the lush strings, sneering horns, leafy woodwinds, and restless percussion, all marshalled with Mancini’s native combination of wit and taste. This music smiles, and occasionally laughs, but never spills its drink.

That this record’s pleasures can stand alone from the movie is hardly surprising: It’s a Mancini signature that as a film composer he always remained resolutely a tunesmith and bandleader, with a knack for matching fully developed charts rather than mere stabs and punctuation to filmic material. He was also, not coincidentally, a savvy record maker with a talent for shaping his film cues into tasty three-minute morsels for public consumption, as the subsequent release of Breakfast’s full film score cues demonstrates.

There’s another layer of Mancini craft I sussed out on this replay. While he can turn out a high-profile melody when it’s called for, as with the vaguely Gallic waltz “Moon River,” many of the tunes here are short, sharp-angled blasts, insinuating swirls, tiny riffs spun out into full grooves--in other words, the fungible, maximally evocative yet minimally distracting zone of all the best film music. The danger of marrying such self-effacing compositional discretion to louche lounge arrangements, of course, is that the result can recede into the musical purgatory of background Muzak. But if the Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack is arguably a kind of wallpaper, it’s an especially vibrant, colorful, even immersive variety--a hothouse of many mansions.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Warm Air You Bring

Today's formative-album replay: Luscious Jackson Natural Ingredients. There’s not a bad track on this alternately roof-raising and subdued party record from 1994, with its tight production hitting the pocket between somnambulant trip-hop and chest-thumping funk/pop, and its street-smart feminism registering both defiant uplift and cautionary side eye. Not just the sentiments but the sounds have aged well, all the more remarkable given the endearingly artless toasting and plaintive, folkish harmonies of lead vocalists Gabby Glaser and Jill Cunniff; but the big choruses, sharp beats, and deep grooves ground even the album’s flimsiest throwaways (“Here,” “Pele Merengue”), and the whole thing hangs together like a great mix tape.

It must be admitted that after an exceptionally strong opening set--including the chill fray of “Citysong,” the flute-lofted sloganeering of “Strongman” (whose lyric “When a man knows/Where he came from/He can't tell me/I am shameful” should be blasted on a loop directly into the eardrums of Congressional Republicans), the minor-key throb of "Angel," and the album’s signature song, the bouncily downbeat throwdown “Deep Shag,” which manages the trick of being both confessional and prosecutorial toward an esteem-crushing partner--the album's spark of inspiration flags slightly. But just as the party starts to thin out comes the searing, spring-loaded “Surprise,” an ululating lamentation in which wayward sperm comes off as a kind of chemical weapon, after which the shambling “LP Retreat” is a welcome benedictory send-off.

The album is bookended by New York City subway sounds, which in my case made this revisit feel like a homecoming in a way it never could have when I first played it to death on my car stereo in L.A. Surprise, surprise.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Phonic Tiles

Today’s formative-album replay: Ars Nova Ensemble Erik Satie, Selected Works. I’m hard pressed to think of any musician as singularly double, as neatly divided, as was this eccentric French/Scot genius, who graced posterity with both the limpid, aching “Gymnopedies” and “Gnossiennes,” as well as a riotous gaggle of droll capers with titles like “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” or “Desiccated Embryos.” With Dadaist stunts like the 9-plus-hour “Vexations” or the found-object ballet score Parade, Satie presaged both minimalism and indeterminacy by several decades.

This record was my happy introduction to Satie's jester mode, from the hectoring pseudo-pomp of "Cinema Music From Relache," music composed for a nonsensical Rene Clair film that struts and frets with faux-naïf enthusiasm through a po-faced theme-and-variations roundelay for 18 exhausting minutes, to the so-called "furniture music" he wrote for an art opening, and which he famously implored gallery-goers to ignore. Fat chance: Though all this odd occasional music has the feel of chamber music stuck in a Sisyphean loop, like Buñuel dinner guests too polite to leave, Satie's native delicacy and incision, even in leg-pulling japery, gives these pieces real verve and drama and feeling, even if one of those feelings is creeping vexation.

Speaking of "Vexations," the excerpt offered here closes the record on a note more gnomic than impish. Perhaps Satie wasn't so Janus-faced after all: The most heartbreaking piece here, at just a minute long, is a loping modal duet for two trumpets with a risible yet evocative title that may serve as an apt summation of Satie's quietly wild, synchronistic imagination: "Fanfare for Waking the King of the Monkeys (Who Sleeps With One Eye Open)."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Still Building Then Burning Down Love

Today’s formative-album replay: U2 The Joshua Tree. One signature of youth, it seems to me, is the speed and thoroughness with which we shed our successive skins, contriving to leave behind no trace of our previous associations, habits, fashions (of both mind and closet) as we acquire ever “better” ones. It’s especially acute in the twilight of adolescence, around the leap into the 20s, with the end of one kind of pretend adulthood and the rough entrance into another. This certainly describes the first chapter of my history with this blindingly great U2 album, a globe-crushing culmination of their early promise which came out when I was 19 and which I loved intensely, molecularly, both live (four times) and on record, but which I more or less sloughed off with the morning-after hangover of Rattle and Hum and happily forgot once the band entered its next great phase with Achtung Baby and its underrated sequels Zooropa and Pop.

As I recall this personal history with The Joshua Tree, both the embrace and the breakup, what’s striking is that my own experience seems to have matched with uncanny exactness the world’s relationship to the record, even the band’s own attitude toward it. It felt like we all drank this record dry then briskly moved on, as from a stormy relationship we could no longer recall the spark of.

Of course, what we were leaving behind wasn’t a torrid affair or a bad haircut but something more like a cultural monument, and revisiting the record in full this past week I was struck by its solidity, its beauty, its deep-down freshness. This stately, soaring collection was a record of my youth? How lucky I was. I didn’t fall in love again this time so much as recognize The Joshua Tree as my own, or rather as our own--a masterwork we can afford to take for granted because it’s earned a well-lit niche in the pantheon.

I warmed again to the bite and chop and surge of the Edge’s singular guitar, a versatile instrument that alternately evokes a cello and a bulldozer, plangent chimes or barbed wire. I realized belatedly the debt the booming blues drone “Bullet the Blue Sky” owes to both “When the Levee Breaks” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”--which is to say, a sweet spot all its own. I discovered one reason for Side 1’s remarkable cohesion in comparison to the grab bag of Side 2: The first five songs are all within a half-step of each other, around the guitar-friendly key of D, while the awkward, charmingly earnest “Red Hill Mining Town,” in the key of G, works like a reset button for a group of tunes in a variety of keys.

Key signatures aside, those last six songs are appealingly rangy and loose, with the sound of a live band hitting their stride in the last third of a show. But throughout, the feeling is of having moved through a kind of architectural space that is all this record’s own--a draughty, shaft-lit cathedral carved out by bass and drums and synth and guitar, and the seagull soar of Bono’s voice. Perhaps this churchy analogy is most apt, for what I really may be revisiting in The Joshua Tree is the vestigial, doubting-Thomas faith of my youth--or rather, one of the more enduring shapes it took--and rediscovering both that it's as unshakeable as ever, and that it's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Previous U2 replay: October.

Friday, May 19, 2017

So Prearranged

Today’s formative-album replay: Little River Band, First Under the Wire. An objectively terrible record, but damned if my 11-year-old self didn't curl up under the covers with a little cassette player and headphones past my bedtime to parse the lyrics and arrangements of this modest but at the time mildly transfixing slab of late '70s soft rock. I had yet to encounter my first true Beatles earthquake and subsequent Wings aftershock, let alone anything harder than what was on AM and FM radio in that disco-saturated era (Kiss doesn't count, does it?), so I didn’t have the taste or the background to recognize the cliches this Aussie Styx knockoff was cycling through like so many Kool-Aid packets: the tasteful faux-blues guitar licks, the lyrical pabulum about quasi-outlaws (“Man on the Run”) and life lessons (“Middle Man”), the oily fern-bar sax, and worst of all the foursquare Oak Ridge Boys vocal harmonies that pop up like exposed male chest hair through a lot of late-’70s/early ’80s “album rock” (Kansas, I’m looking at you).

Of course, it’s hard to actively hate a record so neutrally intentioned and uncynically bad, whose biggest liability is that it doesn’t include LRB’s two best (only good?) songs, the breezy “Reminiscing” and the swaggering “Lady.” As on those hits, Glenn Shorrock’s lightly raspy lead vocals always have a certain smiling warmth, shown to most advantage on the album’s only passably listenable song (and the only one I’ve left checked for future listening in iTunes), the yacht-rock anthem “Cool Change.” As the song has it, it’s kind of a special feeling.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Assez vif et bien rythmé

Today’s formative-album replay: Ravel & Debussy: String Quartets, Chilingirian Quartet. We go to the fin-de-siecle French composers for texture, not tunes. Right? Well, that ignores the Dada plainsong of Satie, for one. And it sells short a large part of the appeal of this perfect pair of string quartets, to my ears the Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds of Belle Époque chamber music. I hear them not only as the fragrant, burbling harmonic laboratories that string quartets conventionally represent but as lively melodic workouts too. On this relisten in particular I was struck by the extent to which both composers use the tightly interlaced sonority of the strings to create a pure, seamless sound world manifestly unlike those of their other chamber, vocal, or orchestral works, with their contrasting colors and timbres, or even their piano works’ crystalline glint--and then exploit that sonic palette not merely as a lush end in itself but as a means to sing out all the more. Four strings have seldom sounded more like a single voice, and a full-throated one at that.

The melodic bounty most evident in the opening movement of the Ravel, to my mind one of his (or anyone’s) perfect creations; it has an uncannily light, breathing quality throughout, as if its phrases are a series of delicate inhalations, its cadences blown kisses. (The Andrew Bird-cited second movement, heard in the video above, ain't no slouch either.) And even when it sharpens or fattens its gestures, it maintains a poise and proportion, a rhythmic and dynamic surety, that is pure, unruffled Cheshire-cat Ravel. The Debussy, on the other hand, has a more crabbed stance and insistent temper; I can think of few other works by this sensitive genius that feel as tightly coiled or as roughly hewn. A spinning top with jagged edges, its melodies feel wrenched or distilled from anguish.

But tunes they both offer, if not in overflowing abundance then in gorgeous plenty enough for me, reaped from the rich harmonic fields that wave and churn throughout. Though written a decade apart, with Debussy’s blazing the trail and Ravel’s deft homage surpassing the original, these quartets are bound together, taut as horsehair bows, like no other two works by these French masters--the perfect two-sided program, in other words. Maybe that's why I wore out this LP.

Previous Ravel replay: Complete Music for Piano.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

This Is a Journey Into (Dolby) Sound

I recently had occasion to discover that The Arizona Republic, where I got my first professional bylines during the summers between a few of my college years, has some of my old features and reviews online (well, sort of). What a joy, then, to find this review of Thomas Dolby from the spring of 1988, when I was newly 20 years old. It even includes one of my most obscure call-outs ever (to S.Z. Sakall, pictured above). Enjoy!

Dolby, friends serve a funkadelic menu

By Rob Kendt
Special for The Arizona Republic
May 30, 1988
Hunger is the best sauce. Proof positive: Sound delays and extenuating factors kept the Friday night crowd at Chuy's hungry until the wee minutes of Saturday morning, when Thomas Dolby and his Lost Toy People finally took the stage. With expectations and the drink tally thus heightened, the crowd relished every moment in close quarters with the British keyboardist.

And he seemed to as well. Critics used to knock him for his prim, icy presence in concert; now they might make fun of his loose, goofy warmth and ear-to-ear grin. Dressed like a beatnik flasher, in a beret and an overcoat, with a face that eerily resembled that of character actor S.Z. Sakall (minus the extra chins), Dolby was less the nutty professor than a hippie schoolboy Friday. The Lost Toy People, a motley crew of six L.A. musicians Dolby enlisted for his new album and tour, matched the weird party spirit of the evening. Ranging from youngish drummer David Owens to camp-sexy backing vocalist Laura Creamer, the band executed playful choreography.

Fronting the stage with a strap-on keyboard, Dolby did some silly-nilly acrobatics with bassist Terry Jackson, who, with Owens, kept the beat thumping. The 80-minute set didn't really start to cook, though, until Dolby hauled out the George Clinton-penned “Hot Sauce.” The ensemble sustained a funkadelic good time for five-odd songs, ending up with Dolby's initial radio hit, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Clearly, something amazing is afoot when a punchy club crowd shouts "Science!" on cue.

And lest anyone be mistaken about the lighter side of Dolby, during the incisive misogyny of “Airhead,” he and the band went to great lengths to show that "The man's tongue is in his cheek." Dolby even obliged with a physical demonstration.

The music mix got a bit belabored along with the humor. The band's too many cooks made soup of Dolby's earlier, more delicate pop. Impeccable studio songs like “Europa and the Pirate Twins” and “Windpower” don't stand up to a punch-drunk jam session the way the newer, funkier stuff does. The haunting, jazzy “I Scare Myself” was the sole exception.

A note or gesture may have seemed out of place, but there was nothing amiss in the spirit of the evening. It is always inspiring to see petulant earnestness surrender to rollicking abandon. Dolby's refrain these days could be Dylan's old line: "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now." Or, to rephrase “Windpower,” "Switch off the mind and let the butt decide."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

If It Be His Will

Leonard Cohen at home in Los Angeles in September, 2016.Photograph by Graeme Mitchell for The New Yorker
Just caught up with David Remnick's extraordinary profile of Leonard Cohen, and though I haven't even finished it yet, I feel the need to address the typically weird and woolly Dylan section, in which Remnick gets some "detailed, critical" quotes from one master about another. The results are...odd.
1. Dylan is right to draw attention to Cohen's music in conjunction with his lyrics. Though one may detect a little special pleading here on Bob's part (this myopia is often true of assessments of his work too), and though I don't class Cohen as a first-rate melodist, the point needs to be made again and again that songs are at their very root not simply music added to lyrics or vice versa but fresh, breathing hybrid creatures whose constituent parts should be pulled apart, if at all, with extreme delicacy. Which leads to...
2. As the last bit of Chronicles proved, Dylan has only a passing grip on music theory. His assessment of "Sisters of Mercy" is roughly correct about the song's rising-falling structure, but no, it doesn't open on a minor key. I guess you can't fact-check Dylan!
3. Irving Berlin? That has to be one the most perverse, po-faced comparisons ever made. I get that Dylan is trying to upend the stereotype of Cohen as Dr. Gloom by juxtaposing with him Mr. Sunshine, but...yeah. That's straight-up weirdo talk.
As for the rest of the piece, while I'm a hot-and-cold Cohen fan (I generally prefer his songs to his recordings, and find many of them uniquely moving in performance, including by myself), it's a good read if you haven't already.