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.