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.