Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Gospel


Father Bob Zimmy doesn’t so much enter the conference room as apparate there, black hoodie drawn Unabomber tight, opaque sunglasses banking the fire of his piercing blue eyes. He sits down at the long, mirror-polished mahogany table, conforming his lanky frame to the Italian leather ergonomics of the chair at the head. He flicks a lever somewhere underneath the seat with the confidence of a NASCAR driver shifting and accelerating into the winning position, the chair tilts back and in the same motion, Dylan’s immaculately worn cowboy boots rise up and find a home on the wooden surface. He sweeps off the hood, removes the sunglasses with a precise pincer grasp on the bridge, and looks up at the three people at the front of the room: “Whaddya got?” The question comes out more like a secret, but he’s got nothing more to say.

The first exec fiddles with his shirt collar and presses a button on the embedded console. A title slide appears on the screen to his left: “Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol 13: Proposal One.” He clears his throat but before the first word is emitted, there’s a creak from Dylan’s chair. He’s holding up his hand, sunglasses still within, like an extra appendage. “There’s no poetry in PowerPoint,” he rasps, “shut that thing off.” The exec flicks his eyes at his colleagues, complies without a word, and starts his pitch. 

“There’s a lot of social media buzz around performances from the Nineties, on YouTube and in various Facebook groups. There’s a consensus building that you had something special going on then, especially in the wake of Time Out Of Mind and all the new songs it put into the set.” Dylan moves his head almost imperceptibly, his way of telling the suit to continue. “So, here’s the cover art for Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Never Ending Nineties - The Baxter- Campbell-Jackson Years.” He slides a glossy printout down the table before resuming. “We based it a little on this Duke Ellington package from a while ago, The Blanton-Webster Years. Won a Grammy, highly acclaimed, still mentioned as one of the best catalog releases of all time.”

Dylan contemplates the cover art for a few silent minutes before swinging his legs off the table and leaning in. “That might be good for the Duke,” he says, “having those other fellas names on the cover. But he was six feet under by that time, and I ain’t there yet. Nothing makes me happier than bootlegging those bootleggers on YouTube - that money doesn’t swear - it sings - but no.” He doesn’t even need to say “next” for the next victim to know she’s at the plate. 

“Thanks, Bob,” the woman says, looking a little overheated in expensive denim, and glancing at some bullet points in her binder, “Your Live at Budokan album is one of your most divisive, with some people claiming it was too glitzy, like Elvis in Vegas. What most people don’t know is that you rehearsed that band for over a month before going tour. It was one of your largest groups and you wanted them tight.” Dylan cocks his head, he’s interested. “You had them work up 150 songs in preparation, many of which were never performed outside of their original studio versions. And there are two previously unpublished song that were only ever worked on during those rehearsals.” She stops talking, gets up, walks down to where Dylan is sitting and puts a piece of paper in front of him. 

The mock-up shows a photo of Dylan in a circle with all the Budokan musicians, standing in front of a stage dense with gear. The words on top say, Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Budokan Or Bust. Dylan picks up the sheet, giving it a hard stare. The exec hands him another document, which shows the potential track listing. “We’re thinking eight CDs and a DVD for the deluxe version, with a two CD standard issue. We -“ Dylan holds up a hand. 

“This could almost work,” Dylan says slowly, “but there’s one problem. Ian Wallace was perhaps the worst drummer I ever worked with. Every building needs a floor,” he adds cryptically, “Or you got nowhere to stand.” He puts the pages down, pushes them away on the slick wood, and speaks volumes with his eyebrows as he looks at the third A&R person, a balding man with stringy hair and an unkempt beard, typical aging hippie. 

The man reaches under the table, picks up a small musical instrument case and places it on the surface. Looking directly at Dylan, he flicks open the two clasps and lifts the lid, revealing a tambourine nestled in black foam. With his eyes still on Dylan, he picks up the tambourine, shakes it high above his head and brings it dramatically down onto his other hand. There’s a second of silence that he fills with a deliberate rhythm, getting up front m his chair, and stalking towards Dylan, making full eye contact and singing, in a thick New York accent: “You may be an ambassador to England or France/You may like to gamble, you may like to dance/You may be the heavyweight champion of the world/You may be a socialite with a long (it sounds like “lawnnnng”) string of pearls/But you’re going to have to serve somebody/Yes, you are, you’re going to have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the lord, but you’re going to have to serve somebody!”

He’s timed it perfectly, so on the last word he stops right in front of Dylan, slapping the tambourine one last time on his hip. Maintaining eye contact, Dylan waves one hand in the air, a wry grin starting on his lined face. The old hippie reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out a wrinkled sheet of paper with his mock-up, unfolds it, and places it in front of Dylan. It shows the singer onstage in a shamanic pose, arms outstretched, wearing a guitar, in full electric preacher mode. Above the picture are the words “Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Gospel Train (1979-1981).”

Dylan indicates the chair closest to him and the man sits down, the other two execs forgotten by both of them. “This I like,” Zimmy says, “because everybody hated and misunderstood that whole time. It was as if I really was Judas - but I had murdered Bob Dylan.” He makes air quotes when saying his name. “So what are we talking here? Live stuff? Rehearsals, outtakes, demos? Hell if I can remember how all those records happened. I DO know for sure that I wanted Saved to be a live album but Columbia said no," He looks pointedly at the other two execs in the room, who pretend to check their phones. "Can we do that?”

“Absolutely,” his new best friend says, pulling another document out of his pocket, “and more, much more.” He unfolds the paper, smoothing it down on the table. It’s an 11x14 spreadsheet, with song names and  recording dates and locations, color-coded to show which songs appear multiple times. “We’ve got all of Saved, except for A Satisfied Mind, in brilliant performances, and all of Slow Train and most of Shot of Love, too! We even dug up 14 unreleased songs. Now listen to this..." He pulls a phone out of his pocket, unlocks it with his face, and makes of couple of gestures. The familiar "bloop" sound is heard as a Google Audio device picks up the signal. He presses play and Slow Train starts playing, but in a completely different version from the one on the studio album. It has a stomping beat and an aggressive edge, with two extraordinary guitar solos that push it into the stratosphere. By the time it ends, Dylan is pounding his hand on the table with the rhythm.

"Hot damn!" Zimmy exclaims, "That was some hot shit band, huh? You know, I got Jim Keltner, the ultimate studio rat drummer to come on the road with me. He told me he cried after every song on Slow Train Coming. Little did he know we'd be out for almost three years! And Fred Tackett on guitar, he was at loose ends after Lowell George died, and Little Feat was in flux. Then I had Tim Drummond, a gut-punching bass player if there ever was one. Spooner Oldham on keys - name someone better." He shakes his head slowly, marveling in the memory of it. "Then I had a little gospel choir to lend some sweetening, as the old record men used to say. Talking about Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, Regina McCrary...couple others. These women could make the phone book sound like hallelujah. I even married one of them," he finishes slyly. "Good as they were, though, I think we should leave their solo sets off-a this thing. We want to focus people on my songs, do a little hard-sell. Same goes for my sermons - who knows what the heck I was going on about, anyhow. I was in the moment. That moment has past, but the songs' time is still to come."

The stringy-haired man utters a near-silent "Amen," and plays a few more songs. Everything sounds sizzling. Ballads burn with quiet fire, rockers are super-charged, even in rehearsal, and abandoned songs hint at new directions and further possibilities. One standout is a rehearsal of Slow Train that seems to come out of the mist, horns and percussion giving it sonic equivalence to Bob Marley & The Wailers circa 1979. Another rehearsal take, of Caribbean Wind featuring a weeping pedal steel, is finally, maybe, a definitive take of a most elusive song. Zimmy listens carefully, then remarks, almost to himself, "That one I couldn't quite grasp what it was about when I finished it."* There's also a very different, searing version of the same song, from its only concert outing in 1980, and a never-before-heard song called Making A Liar Out Of Me that's nearly the equivalent of Blind Willie McTell's surprise appearance on the first Bootleg Series release.

After a couple more live tracks, Dylan puts up a finger: "You hear how good this stuff sounds? We wanted to make a live album, remember, or albums - Shot Of Love could've been better, too - so we took extra care with our stage set-up. Look at the pictures - in many of them you'll see a four foot by 12 foot piece of plexiglas, in between the drums and the choir. We put that baffle in there to keep the vocal bleed out of the drum mics. S'gonna make it a hell of a lot easier to master the tracks, since most of them are from cassette, right?" Everyone else in the room nods in unison. The know they've just had a brief audience with expert producer Jack Frost.

Dylan picks up the spreadsheet, starts running his finger down the columns, nodding once in a while. "I like this. You've got the cream of the live crop up top, looks like - that can be a standard release, two CDs or four LPs, and then you've got some rehearsals and outtakes, plus two more complete shows for the deluxe set. Sweet." He takes a last look at the document, puts a finger on the title and says, "We might have a problem with this Gospel Train business. What about Trouble In Mind?" Zimmy thinks for a minute. "No - Trouble No More, 'cause no one will have a problem with my "gospel era" (air quotes again) when they hear this big ol'box of goodness!" He pushes the spreadsheet back over to the old hippie, who returns with it to his seat and packs it away with the tambourine. "Good. Let's get this out by fall, right?" Everyone makes agreeable noises as Father Bob Zimmy stands up, corrals his frizzy hair with the hoodie, drawing it tight, and slips the sunglasses over his eyes. Before anyone can say a goodbye, he's in the wind. And they've got work to do.

*This is the only real Dylan quote, from an interview with Cameron Crowe referenced in the liner notes. The story about Jim Keltner's tears is also factual, as related by him to Mojo Magazine, December 2017.

Note: I haven't seen the documentary that comes with the Deluxe Edition yet. I'm sure the live footage is scintillating, but the sermons, written by Luc Santé and performed by Michael Shannon have proven divisive among viewers. Plus ća change...


Pick your version of Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 - every home should have one. Still among the unconverted? Check out the sampler on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:

Dylan-Lamar-Misty: An American Trilogy
Off Your Radar Issue #21: Slow Train Coming
Sail On Bob 

This will be my last regular review of the year - time to get on with detailing the Best Of 2017!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics


My musical diet includes a large helping of albums that are based in synthesized sounds - here are some of the tastiest finds from 2017.


Novelty Daughter - Inertia Faith Harding has been in my personal pantheon of unsung heroes since I caught her opening for TV Girl a few years ago. She could do literally anything with her extraordinary voice and it would be instantly compelling. Her instrument has the timbre of a smoky jazz chanteuse and she wields it with the exquisite control of someone who specializes in avant-garde art song. Combine that with the lapidary settings she contrives on her laptop and the results are sublime. However, the most original thing about Novelty Daughter is the way she puts melodies and musical structures together in counterintuitive ways that end up feeling so right.

Her first album, Semigoddess, was a terrific showcase for the way she never takes the easy way out, with soaring melodies pushing against the pulse of the backing tracks in a cerebral approach to emotional explorations. Inertia finds her embracing more dance rhythms on several songs, produced with her usual elegance and attention to sonic detail, as if seeking to be transported out of the difficult feelings and situations that come with living life fully. On Grown, for example, she lets the music draw the conclusion that if you can’t go home again, “put your chin up” and dance till dawn. U Want What I Want borrows a little drum’n’bass busyness to sweeten the slightly bitter pill of the lyrics, in which Harding tries to reach common ground with her counterpart in what may be a failing relationship. 

Kindness, Calmness puts skittering rhythms below meditative synth while Harding tries to come to terms with her own inability to find comfort when somebody treats her well: "Ease is hard to settle into/Paradoxically/Ease is hard to settle into/But I want to try/I'm ready." Harding's lyrics never let you forget there is a real person behind her towering musical intellect. On the title track, she does something new, breaking her usual cool reserve and singing with near abandon about wishing she could “withdraw into a haze, and write my absence as a burning question mark upon your skin.” Rather than a withdrawal, Inertia is further proof that Faith Harding is one of the most interesting artists around. 

Elsa Hewitt - Peng Variations On this, her third album in 2017, Hewitt continues to establish herself as electronic doyenne of the first order. Superficially, she’s doing the same thing as Novelty Daughter (and many others), building beats and backgrounds on synthesizers and laptops and singing over them, yet the results are quite different and very much her own. She creates hazy atmospheres, made up of either ambient washes or interlocking fragments, with distant beats gently propelling the songs. One thing that distinguishes her from others in this musical space is her compositional craft, which she has been honing since she released the bedroom folk album Hotel Rosemary in 2008.

She often uses her voice as another instrument, repeating syllables to add another layer of melodic invention. When she does use words, they’re buried enough in the hazy atmosphere she creates to feel like an internal monologue. That fuzzy quality adds warmth and humanity to all the little electronic bits she painstakingly assembles to build the songs. There are also samples of cats and babies to put a little more fur, flesh and blood into the tracks. Woven into the mix are "cuts from a single event – a play written by four women and their one performance of it in the Yorkshire dales..." which adds intellectual intrigue.

If I were going to categorize Hewitt's three albums, I would say that the first, Cameras From Mars, is future pop, the second, Dum Dum Spiro, is almost purely ambient, and Peng Variations is the most daring, applying some of the principles of musique concrete by adding all kinds of extra-musical sounds into intricate sequences that cohere on repeated listens. There is still significant overlap on all three records and therein lies her style and personality - handmade, gentle, somehow empathetic. I think Hewitt makes music partly as an act of self-care, and the enveloping, immersive nature of her sound-world translates that compassion directly to you - and we can always use more of that in the world! Peng Variations comes out on December 8th - show you care by downloading it or by supporting her PledgeMusic campaign to release some of her music on vinyl.

Summer Like The Season - Thin Today This is a project of Summer Krinsky, a musician, singer, composer and producer who has been plying her trade in the Detroit area for a few years, including in Pocket Candies with the guitarist Sam Naples, releasing a full-length album, Caves in 2015.  You can hear some of Krinsky's dense approach to harmony and prog-fueled arranging in that band but it comes through with more originality and clarity in Summer Like The Season.

The title track of this four-track EP is a perfect example, starting with a layered and looped vocal phrase, over which she starts singing the main melody of the song in her warm, pliable voice. Drums kick in, pushing the song forward busily, electronics burbling underneath and then - thrillingly - sheets of tightly packed backing vocals swoop in, raising the hair on the back of your neck. After the bridge, she expands the envelope  with more layers of sound, but somehow out-of-phase, almost like driving past bridge stanchions with the window just slightly opened: whup-whup-whup. It's breathtaking, and the rest of the songs are nearly as strong.

I'm excited to see what comes next from Summer and also to catch up with Detroit happenings via Girls Rock Detroit, a nonprofit that is "dedicated to fostering creative expression, positive self-esteem and community awareness in girls, trans and gender nonconforming youth through music performance." They just released their first mixtape, which includes Thin Today and 15 other tracks from local artists. If there's anything else on there even half as good as Summer Like The Season, that will be quite a find!

Jonti - Tokorats I know this South African-born, Australia-based polymath mainly as someone in the background of a lot of dreamy sounds over the last few years, but this is the first time I've delved into one of his solo albums. Tokorats is his third full-length and apparently had a tortured gestation over the last five years - but you would never know that by the sonic delights contained within. Jonti also has some high-concept thoughts behind it, claiming that it documents "a five year spiritual journey," and that "every song is a conversation with all the good and unflattering reflections of myself..." That's all well and good - but it has little to do with the experience of listening to the album, which is fortunately far more buoyant than his ponderous thoughts would lead you to imagine.

Rather than an self-lacerating session of encounter therapy, Tokorats is more like a spa treatment for the mind, almost a 21st Century take on 1950s mood music, like that of Martin Denny. Burbling clouds of pretty sounds overlay gentle hip hop-infused rhythm tracks, vocal choirs exhale nearly-wordless melodies, a string section might swoop in like a troupe of ballerinas, somebody might contribute a rap or spoken word interlude (Odd Future's Hodgy is featured and Sampa The Great is also heard from) but nothing breaks the mood. Most of the songs are short, merely elements in the whole album, which is a concise 50 minutes.

Sleeping And Falling is probably the best stand-alone track, its multiple sections a miniature of the album as a whole. The open-eared influence of J.Dilla is everywhere throughout Tokorats, but the spirit of the thing is contained in Misto On The Moon's sample of Comment (If All Men Were Truly Brothers), the hymn-like ode to fellow-feeling by Charles Wright. If you're looking for something to sit alongside Cornelius's 90s classic Fantasma, or Dilla's Donuts itself, get Jonti on your shelf. Thanks to his richly imaginative musicality and generous heart, wherever you listen will be instantly bedazzled with rainbows and waterfalls.

Suzi Analogue - Zonez V.3: The World Unwinds But The Sound Holds Me Tight On the latest installment of her Zonez series of "audio moodboards," Suzi invites a few more guests than usual, featuring collaborators on six of the 11 tracks. But the ultra-rhythmic and sweetly melodic personality that defines her music is always at the forefront. In a way, having someone like dancehall singer JAX on the opening cut, NUMBA 1, is a signpost, pointing your ear to the Caribbean flavors embedded in the track, which might not otherwise be so obvious. Similarly, having a verse by DC-based rapper NAPPYNAPPA on Game/Change is a way of giving the nod to the influence of hip hop on Suzi's music. 

Besides reggae and hip hop, Suzi draws on many traditions, including drum'n'bass, house, footwork, and even ambient, building her tracks from repeating modules of soft and hard sounds, including vocals, and interleaving them with the beats with the deft touch of a true virtuoso. She also demonstrates structural command through the concise journeys each song travels, like mini-trips through her imagination via the most scenic route possible. Her music is often busy in all the right ways, and she's also very prolific, making videos for nearly every song and branching out by scoring a short horror film called End Of Forever. This is promising direction for her as she conjures some truly hair-raising sounds out of her rig. Mica Levi should be looking over her shoulder!

Looking for more fascinating electronic sounds from 2017? Follow this playlist and find your joy.

Coming next: Bob Dylan gets sanctified.

You may also enjoy:
Goldfrap, Silver Eye, Brooklyn Steel
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Novelty Daughter: Up From Underground
Channel Surfing With TV Girl



Sunday, November 19, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 2


This has been a bang-up fall for new music from my favorites. In Part 1, I looked at the latest from American veterans Hiss Golden Messenger, Beck, and Iron & Wine. This edition features two surprising returns to form and two strong albums from artists still early in their careers.

The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles While there have been a few songs released since their last album, the infinitely autumnal Bonfires On The Heath from 2009, it seemed that circumstances were conspiring against us ever having a new full-length collection from The Clientele. I counted myself beyond lucky to have seen them twice in 2014, when they were celebrating the reissue of Suburban Light, their debut, but thought that might indeed be it. 

Then, a chance meeting between singer/songwriter/guitarist Alasdair MacLean and an old friend, Anthony Harmer, catalyzed the (yes) miraculous album now under discussion. Harmer plays the saz and the santur, a Middle Eastern lute and dulcimer respectively, and is also dab hand at pop arranging. He wound up producing the album, sprinkling his sparkling instruments here and there and helping to develop jewel-like settings for each song. There are are trumpets, strings, keyboards, and detailed vocal arrangements, all in service of some of MacLean’s best songs yet. Providing the perfect foundation, as always, are bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen, whose telepathic engagement with every contour of the songs is more remarkable than ever. 

Take Lunar Days, for example, where Keen’s drums tick along almost in a bossa nova style until the chorus, when subtle taps on the snare underscore each word and gently perturb the tempo, helping to emphasize the way the words “Holloways, lunar days,” seem to spill out of the preceding verse. Constellations Echo Lanes also goes through subtle changes that seem to arise organically from the flow of the words rather than just following verse/chorus/verse. There are many such detailed moments throughout Miracles and finding them is like following Ariadne’s golden thread to the heart of The Clientele’s genius. 

When I was first falling for The Clientele, around the time of their third album, I would often find myself ticking off their influences. But now I just hear The Clientele, as no one really sounds like them. That doesn’t mean they don’t push their own envelope a little, as on Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself, which features electronic beats programmed by Harmer, amidst Keen’s drums. Keen is also responsible for three charming instrumentals, which provide space for contemplation amidst the rainswept suburbia that is MacLean’s lyrical bailiwick. That’s not a dig, by the way, as a more literate and intelligent guide would be hard to imagine. For example, the Museum of Fog is a spoken word piece (like their classic Losing Haringey) that reads perfectly as a short story and for Falling Asleep he adapts verse from World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, making lines about hounds and herons sound positively contemporary. 

As elaborate as the settings are on Miracles, a recent concert at the Bell House proved, yet again, that MacLean, Hornsey, and Keen are the heart of the band. All they need to create a whole world out of thin air is electric guitar arpeggios, gently meandering bass, precisely pulsing drums - and the comforting burr of MacLean’s vocals. It’s a remarkable conjuring to witness, and having new songs to play this time only injected more wonder into the night. From the smile on MacLean’s face as they brought album standout Everyone You Meet to a close that Sunday night, he agreed completely. Their U.S. tour has ended, but keep track of their activities - you never know when you might get a chance to see them.

Historian - Expanse I don’t want to be a jerk, but often when people DM me their music, it’s just not very good. So, when Chris Karman, (who records as Historian) sent me his debut album Shelf Life in 2013, it was a more than pleasant surprise. While somewhat unformed, especially in the vocal department, there was a spark of originality and craft to his melancholy songs that kept me listening. Somehow I missed his second album, Currents, which showed steady improvements on the way towards the excellence we find on Expanse. 

Led by Karmen’s stately keyboards and windswept guitar, the core of the band is tight and the strings of Quartetto Fantastico (which includes the brilliant Miguel Atwood-Ferguson) has elevated Historian’s sound into the realm of exquisite chamber pop. Karman’s singing, which reminds me a little of Mike Doughty, is more confident and compelling by several orders of magnitude. Each song creates its own atmospheric cloud of mood, matching the lyrics, which probe themes of existential import in enough detail that I wonder if the project should have been called Philosopher. But it’s more heartfelt than that would imply, and quite affecting. 

Although I could highlight songs like Here And Then, which is very catchy and nearly breezy, or Stars, which seems to create more mystery with each finely incised guitar riff, Expanse is a very consistent album and one which firmly plants Karman’s flag on today’s indie landscape as a talent with which to reckon. P.S. Currents is very nearly as good so you might as well save on shipping and order them both at once!

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Adios Señor Pussycat I’m not going to recount Head’s storied past with bands like Pale Fountains, Shack, and The Strands (this article does a good job of that), but suffice to say that one of his albums is called The Magical World Of The Strands and more than lives up to its title. There’s also plenty of that magic on this new release, which is perhaps the most rapturously received album in Britain this year if my Twitter feed is to be believed. 

And why not? All the Brit-folk-rock touchstones are here, as is the spirit of The Byrds - far more strongly than on that snoozefest Tom Petty produced for ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. The sound of the album, all 12-string shimmer, swaying rhythms, perfect touches of strings and sax, and Head’s warm tenor, is nothing more than the sonic expression of a person seizing a second (or maybe a third) chance at life, fully in command of their talents and grateful for the opportunity. That means songs that flow with perfect inevitability and dole out hard-won wisdom and joyous sing-alongs in equal measure. On What's The Difference we even get a dose of Love steeped in the grandeur of Ennio Morricone - grandiose, yes, but it's great to see Head still taking chances. 

If Michael Head is a completely unfamiliar name to you, there is a 30-year wealth of great songwriting to imbibe. Start with Adios Señor Pussycat and work backwards - and sign up here so you don't miss the next 30 years. 

Warhaus - Warhaus Maarten Devoldere's first brilliant album as Warhaus was called We Fucked A Flame Into Being, after a DH Lawrence quote, and I guess he knew he couldn’t top it, hence going for the self-titled option. Or maybe he was just seeking more name recognition after the first album, which I included on my Top 20 for 2016, failed to set the world on fire.

That was the world’s loss, however, and one which will now be doubled if this second slab of louche Euro-cabaret-rock escapes the notice it deserves. Devoldere has perfected his gravelly, insouciant slur of a voice while bringing more clarity to his musical conception, which is spacious and dimensional, with plenty of air around each well-chosen instrument. Tuned drums or a brushed snare define the rhythm with upright bass as a dance partner, strings may hover above, or his trademark barking trombones might intrude with apt rudeness, as piano and guitar sketch out melodies. The last point should be emphasized as Devoldere's most surprising trait may be his uncanny ability to come up with great tunes and sweeping choruses. 

Many of the songs have familiar titles - Mad World, Dangerous, Bang Bang, Fall In Love With Me - but sound brand new, which may be his sly acknowledgment of the vast territory he wishes to occupy in the zeitgeist, or (more likely) a reflection of his warmer, more direct approach this time around. But while the music may go down with less spikiness than the first album, there are still plenty of barbs to be found in the lyrics. "You have a god to forgive you it's a privilege you have/You have a book that starts with a Bret Easton Ellis autograph/Bottles to empty and prescriptions to fill/And if no god will forgive you, baby, you know I will," he sings in Mad World with a combination of contempt and compassion. And there's probably no one else alive who could get away with this line from Well Well: "And if you want to get laid/In a fashionable way/I'll try to look like I understand/What you want from a man." Thank god for unreconstructed Europeans - never change, Maarten!

With these two Warhaus albums, Devoldere is carving out a unique spot in rock, but one with enough broad appeal to be less niche than it appears. If you're looking for something with the unfiltered edge of a Gauloise and the sensibility of a true devotee to the craft of songwriting, do not hesitate. And you can bet that if he ever ventures outside of Europe for a concert, I'll be first in line. I hope you'll be ready to join me.

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.


Next time I'll return to the Record Roundup format to report on some eclectic electronica that's come out over the course of the year.

You may also enjoy:


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 1


It’s a rare year indeed when so many of my bedrock artists of recent years put out new material, especially so close together, but this fall's releases are redefining "embarrassment of riches." Let's get right to it!

Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow Every record by M.C. Taylor is a labor of love, but this may be the most loving music he’s released yet. It comes hard on the heels of last year’s Heart Like A Levee, a sprawling double album shaded by its fair share of self-doubt, with many songs guided in part by the philosophy “You can’t choose your blues but you might as well own them.” This batch of songs is all together sunnier, a reflection of Taylor’s remarkable ability to use music to turn things around when things look bleak. 

There’s a looser, more collective vibe here, too, as if Taylor and his road band knocked these songs together at soundchecks and in rehearsal studios, driven by his relentless desire to get some positivity into a world filled with dark currents. Of course, when your band includes Brad and Phil Cook (bass and guitar, respectively), Josh Kaufman (guitars), Darren Jessie (drums) and people like Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig on backing vocals, you’re talking Americana royalty, people who can get into a heartfelt groove on a moment’s notice. The horns are a nice touch as well, filling out songs like the re-recorded John The Gun, originally a haunting bit of solo folksong on the deluxe edition of Levee. 

The themes, melodies, rhythms, and instrumental touches will all be familiar to fans of Dylan, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Michael Chapman -  if you want to call this “dad rock,” I think Taylor would wear the badge proudly. And this father of three connects instantly with Hiss Golden Messenger, something I can’t say for The War On Drugs, which others have embraced under that label. Maybe if my dad listened to Don Henley and Dire Straits, that would be different! 

Taylor continues to be one of the best songwriters around, and if a line like “Step back, Jack, from the darkness,” (from When The Wall Comes Down) is a little more on the nose than usual for this supremely literary lyricist, that may be what the times demand. Just as his use of "patriotic" motifs in the marketing for the album seeks to reclaim something too often associated with repressive parts of our society, a radio-friendly “classic rock,” or even “southern rock” gesture like Domino (Time Will Tell) may be a point of unity among groups who have lost the ability to converse easily. 

That may be too much weight to place on an album that contains, overall, Hiss Golden Messenger’s most effervescent music. And I can't completely ignore the fact that Hallelujah Anyhow does not cut as deep as my favorite from him, Lateness Of Dancers. But when so many American verities seem on the verge of blowing away, there’s more than enough integrity here to stand on as you wait out the storm. Catch HGM on the road - it's always a great night.

Beck - Colors As long as we’re talking politics and music, I think it’s funny that many people have predicted a great punk revival in the Trump era, as if that was the only movement that pushed against the harsher inclinations of the 70s, and I’m like, “Remember disco?” Bringing people together on the dance floor was just as radical an act as igniting a mosh pit, and maybe ultimately more effective. So I don’t think it’s any accident that Beck released his “Fuck art, let’s dance” album in 2017, even though it’s been in the works for years. 

Nothing is simple, though, and this may be Beck’s most divisive record yet, with people turned off by everything from the hyper-compressed production to the relentless cheerfulness of the thing. But if you give yourself over to the bright, shiny candy-colored surface - and Colors is almost all surface, like a James Rosenquist painting - it’s hard to stop smiling as the songs whirl past. Beck and his producer-in-crime Greg Kurstin (who also gets songwriting credit on most of the record) cook up each song for maximum enjoyment, each track filled with as many surprise and delight features as a concept car at the auto show. 

I hear echoes of Breton, Stewart Copeland, Benji Hughes, and The Beatles, all absorbed into Beck’s pop smoothies, each song sounding, somehow, unmistakably like no one other than him. That’s partly due to his distinctive, vibrato-free tenor, which is still as versatile as it was 20 years ago - he even raps a little, for the first time in several albums. While a downcast sincerity has been a hallmark of his folk-based work (Sea Change, Morning Phase), ironic detachment is a common mode for his upbeat, chopped and screwed side. That’s not the case here, as an open-hearted happiness infuses most of the album. But if irony is absent, there’s still plenty of sly surrealism. I would pay good money for a video of the moment in the studio when he inserted all those “Giddyups” into Wow - I look forward to them every time I listen. 

Unlike the great Morning Phase, however, Colors is not a perfect album. Fix Me is a half-baked song, ending the record on an ellipse when it should have gone out with a bang. Even if that had been...er...fixed I'm not sure Colors ever would have been as good as his best work. Kurstin is just too white bread (if you can still say that) a collaborator. It's notable that Wow, which may be the best song here, is the one he is least involved in, with Beck getting a major assist from Cole M.G.N. But as I said to a friend, Colors is a party album - let's all have more parties! 

While it remains to be seen how he will integrate the new material in concert, there’s also no doubt that Beck will have a blast busting out all his best moves when he takes Colors on the road. Giddyup. 

Iron & Wine - Beast Epic I’m not one of those who greeted the eclecticism of the most recent albums by Sam Beam and Co. with a sigh, yearning for the bedroom intimacy of modern classics like The Creek That Drank The Cradle. Not only did I find his incorporation of funk, soul, jazz, and dub captivating, I listened in astonishment as Beam became one of the best singers alive. Hearing him sing Sade’s Bulletproof Soul On Sing Into My Mouth, his way underrated covers album with Ben Bridwell, sealed the deal. But I also became concerned about his songwriting inspiration, especially when he followed up with another collaborative project, this time with Jesca Hoop, which contained few memorable songs. 

Now, four years after the last I&W album of all original songs, Beam has given us a Beast Epic, not a return to his stripped-down indie folk, but a reclamation of some of that woodsy territory nonetheless. The production is no less complex than something like The Shepherd’s Dog, but every song has an acoustic center, whether big-chord strumming or hypnotic finger-picked patterns. Beam surrounds those guitars with strings, marimba, piano, reeds, brass, and percussion, creating the atmosphere of a sophisticated jam around the campfire that, varied as it is, feels as warm as an inherited Hudson’s Bay blanket. 

The songs are all solidly constructed, with melodies as natural as breathing. The lyrics have arresting koan-like nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout, such as “Nothing makes silence like experience/There’s a message in my eyes/You better love yourself/‘Cause I tried,” from Bitter Truth, and ”For all the love you left behind, you can have mine,” from Call It Dreaming, which is an instant Iron & Wine classic. There are also little bits of eccentricity that add tooth to the album, calling out to art song, the sardonic theater music of Brecht/Weill, or even the cracked Americana of Harry Partch. Hearts Walk Anywhere, one of two brief bonus songs available on vinyl only, pushes this even further, pointing in possible new directions. Theater? Chamber music? There are no limits to what Sam Beam can conjure when he's inspired and he is surely inspired on the gorgeous tapestry of Beast Epic. Let me know if you make it to one of the shows!

Coming in Part 2: The Clientele, Historian, and Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia
Beck's Next Phase



Saturday, October 28, 2017

Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge


The idea of "progress" in music is a bit amorphous. One description of it might include music that reflects the current state of society and the sonic universe of the time in which it was created. This would have us recognize both musique concrete and hip hop as "progressive" for reflecting industrial and urban realities in a way that was new at the times they arose. But there's also the fact that, once introduced, even the edgiest sounds can become fodder for generations of artists, leading to modern or "new music" tropes that are maybe not so modern or new - but they can still sound fantastic and challenge our ears. Below find five albums that are either on the cutting edge of musical progress or that sound "new" even if they draw on the modernism of earlier eras. 

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble  - Return Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover showing a supposed void between America's coasts should be redrawn with a giant neon sign pointing to Allendale, MI, where this estimable band has been plying its trade since 2006. Even more astonishing than their excellent performances of canonical pieces like Reich's Music For 18 Musicians or the works they have commissioned over the years is the fact that the program, under the direction of Bill Ryan, is churning out composers to reckon with at an alarming rate. 

It all comes together on Return, featuring electro-acoustic music written by three GVSU grads, Adam Cuthbert, Matt Finch and Daniel Rhode, who together founded slashsound, an "experimental" music collective. While the three composers all get individual credits among the 15 tracks on offer, the sound of the record is so cohesive that you don't think much about who wrote what. They also used the time-honored "write-record-cut-paste" method where the final product is the result of further manipulating sounds laid down in the studio and assembling them into the works we hear here. This means that the personality and skill of the players is not something you're very aware of, although I don't doubt that these are all excellent musicians. 

So where does this leave us? With 15 gorgeous selections of music at the intersection of ambient and minimalism, where repeating patterns may devolve into washes of sound or bold chords, and where a mechanical pulse may underlie soaring stardust synth before resolving into a drone. Like the best of Brian Eno's instrumental music, your attention can dip in and out at will with no loss of satisfaction. Return is a consistently immersive listen but if you want to sample try location sharing, with its commanding thrums, or dearest rewinder these, which moves through overlapping patterns, some quite Reichian, and resolves into gleaming, triumphant keyboard chords that wouldn't sound out of place on the new Beck album. Good show, GVSU!

Phong Tran - Initiate This first album by recent NYU grad (he studied with Michael Gordon) Tran was released by slashsound’s label and definitely fits their aesthetic. Tran, however, is exploring the use of “minimal source material” and composed the work using only homemade synthesizer software. But there’s still more than enough variety in texture and tempo in the seven movements to keep you interested. What really keeps you riveted is the narrative structure and urgency. Tran was inspired by “the story in every story” theorized by Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and as applied to the enormous life changes going on for him and his family and friends. Of course, the mind movie you create while listening will be your own - get ready to watch it in IMAX. 

Scott Wollschleger - Soft Aberration This debut album of angular chamber music showcases a composer so steeped in the European avant garde that neither Schoenberg, Berio or Boulez would have trouble connecting to what he’s doing here. But it’s rare that you hear such command of structure and orchestration in any idiom. Some of that may be a result of the fact that each piece was commissioned by its performer(s) and conceived with their specific talents in kind. The first piece, Brontal Symmetry, has wit, melody, and plenty of spice, doled out in digestible bits. Created from scraps unused in earlier works, it’s an ideal introduction to Wollschleger’s talents. The recording by Longleash, a trio comprised of Pala Garcia (violin), John Popham (cello), Renate Rohlfing (piano), sets a very high bar with their commitment and surprisingly light touch. 

Popham is also heard in the threnodic America for solo cello, which he dispatches as though the ink were drying on the score. But with the great pianist Karl Larson on board with violinist Anne Lanzilotti in the title piece, and the Mivos Quartet closing the album with the spectral White Wall, there was never going to be any let up in quality. Wollschleger’s astonishing grasp is further demonstrated by perhaps the most challenging piece here, Bring Something Incomprehensible Into The World, a three movement work for soprano (Corinne Byrne) and trumpet (Andy Kozar). With both musicians pursuing extended techniques with style and even levity, it more than lives up to its title, and wonderfully so. Far from an aberration, this album is the sound of someone firmly planting their flag at a thrilling elevation. More, please. P.S. Keep an eye on upcoming performances of Wollschleger's music, including Larson in the complete piano music on November 20th.

Brooklyn Rider - Spontaneous Symbols A new album from this expert quartet is always cause for celebration, and this album of 100% premiere recordings may be their finest yet. The five pieces here cover a lot of ground, from Tyondai Braxton’s ArpRec1 - two brief and busy movements created using generative software - to Kyle Sanna’s ruminative Sequence For Minor White, which pays tribute to the great photographer over 20 searching minutes. 

The quartet is enhanced by some tinkling chimes at the end of Sanna’s piece and also by electronics in Paula Matthusen’s on the attraction of felicitous amplitude. The additional sounds are treated recordings made in an ancient Roman cistern and the short piece is as mysterious as that would imply. Evan Ziporyn, a founding member of Bang On A Can, knows something of field recordings, but his Qi is probably the most straightforward work here. Featuring three dynamic movements filled with lyricism and driving rhythms, Qi also shows a real mastery of arrangement as the stings pair off in different combinations or take soaring solos against a backdrop of the other instruments. 

The last work to mention is BTT, composed by Colin Jacobsen, one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists. Inspired by the idea of downtown Manhattan as a hotbed of the avant-garde, from the Velvet Underground to Glenn Branca, over 20 minutes it pursues a series of riffs that occasionally imply a rock backbeat before devolving into impassioned scrubbing or delicate pizzicato. There’s a narrative thrust to BTT, like a series of overheard anecdotes, or scenes from the window of a cab ride home over rain-slicked midnight streets, that makes it consistently fascinating throughout. 

The recording, released on In a Circle Records, which is run by quartet violinist Johnny Gandelsman, is second to none, with dimension, clarity, and just the right amount of warmth. Brooklyn Rider are in the midst of an international tour that runs through June 2018. You won’t want to miss them if they come to your town. 

Quatuor Diotima - Arturo Fuentes: String Quartets Is it truly impossible to find the bottom of the well of great string quartets and composers? It’s starts to feel that way when an album like this comes on the radar. Fuentes while still young, is 20 years into a career that is all news to me - and maybe to you, too. I was also unfamiliar with Diotima, which was founded in 1996. This is the first recording of these four quartets, however, which were all composed between 2008 and 2014, so at least we’re caught up on that front! 

The titles of the substantial single-movement works here would suggest that they all occupy the same sound-world - and they do. It could even be said that Broken Mirrors, Liquid Crystals, Ice Reflection and Glass Distortion are all movements in one meta-quartet or even a symphony for four strings. The thin, wiry sounds of heavily angled bows on high strings thread their way through each piece, along with harmonics and slightly shredded bass strings, giving the impression of an almost constant fragmentation, like a kaleidoscope that will never stop turning, pieces that will never cohere. 

There’s an almost mimetic quality to these absorbing works, too, with the mirrors, crystals, ice and glass referred to in the titles coming to life in your mind’s eye as you listen. While occasionally discomfiting, there is also an elegance to Fuentes’ writing, with a recognition of the characters of the instruments that seems to run very deep. I also can't help hearing harmonization with the icy, scrabbling textures on Nordic Affect's Raindamage - if you liked that, this will be right up your alley. From my brief traverse of his other recorded works, this album is as good an introduction as any to an exciting composer who is sure to only grow in stature. 

Selections from these albums and others in this zone can be found this playlist. Click “follow” if you want to keep in touch with what is still to come in 2017. 

You may also enjoy:

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Record Roundup: Siren Songs




Perhaps some of the impetus behind NPR's Turning The Tables or this recent feature in the New York Times is because this has been a banner year for albums either made by or heavily featuring women. I've already mentioned Nordic Affect, The Courtneys, Goldfrapp, Noveller, Novella, Elsa Hewitt, and Nadia Reid in my Best Of 2017 (So Far) - that's almost half the list! Crumb, led by Lila Remini, recently released Locket, an EP of their distinctive, accomplished songs, EMA's Exile On The Outer Ring is a powerful return to form, and Not Dark Yet by Shelby Lynne and Alison Moorer features the sisters singing a powerful collection of covers and one new song they wrote together. I've also been enjoying records by This Is The Kit, Caroline Says, Julie Byrne, Jen Cloher, Sudan Archives, Wild Ponies, Jane Weaver, Diet Cig, Juana Molina, Hollie Cook, and others. Whew.

Here are four more albums made by women in 2017 that I think are worthy of special attention.

Charlotte Dos Santos - Cleo A high point of Sofie's SOS Tape was Dos Santos's Watching You, a seductive and spare groove that seems to redefine the term "sweet nothings." This is especially true when Dos Santos harmonizes with herself, a truly heavenly sound. Now we have a debut album which, while it doesn't always reach those sublime heights, provides a further roadmap to the talents of this unique singer, songwriter and producer.

Her instrument is a high soprano which she employs with remarkable flexibility and control. She could easily pursue straight jazz but seems to naturally gravitate toward an elegant R&B modernism, with a touch of hip hop soul. Even knowing that going in, the opening track, a sweet take on the 700 year old song Sumer Is A Cumen In, was a delightful surprise, signaling an artist unbound by convention. The whole album is a languid experience, perfect for hot nights and cold cocktails. It's a digital vacation, drifting by with a delicious lack of friction. That said, my ears do perk up more during Red Clay, which has the feel of a new standard, and the closing track, It's Over Bobby, an almost stately cha cha. I could feel sorry for Bobby - but what a way to go.

Nicole Atkins - Goodnight Rhonda Lee Atkins's last album, Slow Phaser (my #10 album of 2014), was a masterpiece of Bowie-esque pop, with clever lyrics and more hooks than a strip of Velcro. Her latest draws more on classic sounds of the 50s, 60s and 70s - think Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Dusty Springfield, Elvis, maybe even a little Linda Ronstadt - without being slavish. It's a magnificent showcase for her voice, which can be Broadway big, soul music raw, country smoke, or pure pop. There's even a little disco-era glamour on Sleepwalking. Behind the chameleon is a warm but slightly hard-bitten character who has seen it and done it all and is now here to spread the wisdom.

Goodnight Rhonda Lee wouldn't be so entirely winning if the songs weren't so damned solid. On this front she's enlisted some expert assistance, co-writing every song with the right kind of pros, like Chris "Wicked Game" Isaak, Louise "songwriting royalty " Goffin, and Jim "Lydia Lunch to Nick Cave" Sclavunos, and others, all of whom know their way around classicism. Everything is top notch, from the recording and production by Niles City Sound (founded by former members of White Denim, who are also part of the crack session squad), all the way down to the sequencing of the album. I still get chills when opening track A Little Crazy U-turns into Darkness Falls So Quiet, with its Memphis strings and NYC attitude. Another thing Atkins has going for her is restraint. Even when she's belting it out, she's always in control, holding back just a little. You don't have to be shy, though - play it loud and often. 

Note: Nicole Atkins is on the road, including a show at Music Hall of Williamsburg on November 7th - perhaps I will see you there.

Jenny O - Peace & Information Like Nicole Atkins, Jenny crowdfunded this album and (full disclosure) I contributed to both. While it's always a bit of a risk buying something unheard, her debut, as well as the solo performance that introduced her to me, was so impressive that I had no worries about a sophomore slump. And when I saw she was working with Father John Misty-whisperer Jonathan Wilson as producer again, I was even more comfortable with my little investment in her talent.

Unlike the Atkins album, however, Peace & Information is more of an incremental move on Jenny's part, rather than entree into a new sound world. That means we get more of the same wonderful Beatle-esque rock with relatable lyrics and hooky instrumental flourishes that we got on 2012's Automechanic. The songs are just as good, even slightly more original and she's singing better than ever, so if you want to call it a formula, be my guest. She does ramp up the drama a bit, especially on grungy opener Case Study and Seashells, with its spine-tingling strings, and ventures into new territory on If You're Lonely, with its beguiling nod to Bossa Nova giving a breezy twist to the sadness in the lyrics. But there are few singer-songwriters currently at her level so if she wants to stay in her area of strength, I'm good with that.

One of the things that makes her unique (besides her individualistic voice) is the sense she gives of being a person in the world, which can give some of the songs the immediacy of a status update. People opens with this couplet: "It was a bad day on the street, oh/They had a barricade for the angry" - we all know what that's about - and High Regard harkens back to many of the recommendations for self-care that fill my newsfeed:

"In the line of sympathy reserved for anyone
With the eyes I lay upon a stranger
With the same acceptance
And the high regard
With the curiosity
And the light that another brings
With the light that the other brings
As I do for them
I will do for me."

That sense of resilience and the possibility for not only survival but growth, even in times that strain your heart and your political sensibilities is a subtext that adds steel to the spine of Peace & Information. Sing along and draw on that strength in your own life.

Note: Jenny O. is also on tour and I hope to catch her at the Mercury Lounge on November 18th.

Chloe X Halle - The Two Of Us We live in an odd time, where kids playing covers (or even lip-synching!) in their bedrooms can garner more YouTube hits than the three artists above - combined. But that's also how these singing sisters were discovered, by Beyoncé no less, launching a career that started with an excellent debut EP, Sugar Symphony, in 2016. Now comes The Two Of Us, which they insist is neither an album nor a mixtape (what would you call 16 songs in 25 minutes?), but which is an excellent showcase of their versatile talents nonetheless.

The opening track, Used To Love, dazzles with an intricate vocal arrangement accompanied only by handclaps, a jazzy take on doo wop informed by modern R&B and hip hop. Poppy Flower is a narcotized seduction ("I can be your poppy flower/make you fall in a coma after hours") with a sly Carlton Barrett drum fill that shades it into reggae territory. There's a very satisfying bluesy edge to a couple of tracks, so often lacking in R&B - check out Chase for an example.

Reading around the web, I get the idea that Beyoncé fans are waiting for something bigger from these teenagers. I hope they maintain their delicate but intense minimalism, poetic lyrics, and vocal restraint, without falling into radio-ready convention. Whatever happens, The Two Of Us will always be one the delights of the year.


How many of the records mentioned here are on your radar? Are you as overwhelmed with great new music as I am?

Songs from all of the albums mentioned above - and more - are included in this Spotify playlist. I'll keep adding to it, too!




You may also enjoy:

Monday, September 18, 2017

Walter Becker: No Compromise

Photo: Damon Gray

"… and yet I feel as much as a secret agent with amnesia as I ever did. I can’t remember who I work for, but I know I’m spying on these people. I probably planted a bomb in their house, you know?" - Walter Becker*

I was 10 when I first fell for Steely Dan, hooked by the haunting refrain the opens the single version of Rikki (Don't Lose That Number), which I categorized alongside Golden Earring's Radar Love, another song with a kind of grim mystery, although my young mind would likely have just called them both "cool." Rikki was the one that stuck, however, and I liked to turn the lyrics, so full of unresolved lines, over in my mind, trying to figure out what was going on, while I marveled equally at the perfect guitar solo, which somehow seemed to answer all those questions. 

Gradually, as the 70's wore on, I began to put Rikki together with other songs I heard on the radio: Do It Again, Reeling In The Years, Black Friday - taping them off the radio and starting to realize that this band was a force I needed to reckon with. Then came Deacon Blues, seemingly a betrayal. First of all, it was impossibly slick. Second of all, "Learn to work the saxophone"? What was that? Who spoke like that? Third of all, there were other attractions - punk, nascent new wave, and Electric Ladyland, which I had just discovered. 

I remember commiserating with my best friend and musical partner in crime Mike Diamond (yes, that one), saying in effect: "What is this shit?" But Aja, the album that contained that egregious song, was a juggernaut, becoming Steely Dan's first platinum selling album. This was still the height of the Album Oriented Rock radio format, before it calcified into Classic Rock, so that meant airplay for lots of tracks from Aja. Peg was heard, Black Cow, even the lengthy title track, and then Josie. Ah, sweet, dark, funky Josie, the one for whom we "break out the hats and hooters," the one who was "the raw flame, the live wire," who "prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire," and she who causes us to "dance on the bones till the girls say when." What the heck was a "battle apple," anyway? Here again was some of that dark mystery that I had fallen for in 1974, with a salacious undertow that tantalized my 13-year old imagination.

In the midst of the sprung rhythm and pitch-black words came a guitar solo as tidy as the one from Rikki, while pulling against the beat like featherweight taffy. I never got tired of the way it seemed elevate the song out of the murk for a few seconds of bliss. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was coming face to face with Walter Becker in that moment. I bought Aja ASAP and discovered a new world of sarcasm in the liner notes and a new approach to making records. Instead of some equivalent to the four Beatles, there were different musicians on every track, and it was all under the direction of two guys: Becker and Donald Fagen. 

There were snapshot-quality photos of the two of them on the inner sleeve, each of them in a kind of disguise. Fagen was at his California rock-god peak, looking tan, handsome, and almost "what's your sign" vapid. Becker was noodling on a guitar, his face framed in long stringy hair and hidden behind dark glasses, a hippie lab rat. There they were, exposed but somehow oblique and unknowable. The message was received: this was not a star trip, this was about the music. 

There were also two songs on side two they didn't play on the radio, including the stunning Home At Last, which originated the still under-explored genre of Homeric funk. When I saw Mike again, it seemed he had come to the same conclusion, that Aja was a full-length masterpiece, and was more than happy to make a cassette from my copy. 

Aja, and the other albums as I worked my way backwards, gave me that same sense of recognition and acknowledgement that I felt seeing Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove for the first time. There were others out there who looked at the world through black-humored glasses and who used that vision to make perfect art. It wasn't all great - there were some clunky lyrics on the first two albums and a few duff tracks on the third. But the level of quality was astonishingly high, from the almost tender musings on Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied (Razor Boy, Any Major Dude, Rose Darling, Dr. Wu), to the cinematic take-downs of 60's and 70's culture on The Royal Scam (Kid Charlemagne, the title track). There was also science fiction (Sign In Stranger) and hilarious story songs like Everyone's Gone To The Movies and Haitian Divorce. 

While it's almost impossible to tease apart Becker and Fagen's individual fingerprints where the songwriting is concerned, I do think it's worth noting that Becker sometimes sang Haitian Divorce in concert. It also employs a reggae beat, something he drew on in some of his solo work. In fact a friend of mine described an encounter where Becker came into a record shop asking for Culture records and ended up buying the whole catalog. For some reason, I also associate telegraphic lines like "semi-mojo/who's that kinky so-and-so" with Becker's interview style. Goddamn he was funny. 

While Steely Dan were as album-oriented as Led Zeppelin, post-Aja we also were bequeathed the delights of FM, composed as the title track for a movie so lame it doesn't even rise to the status of a cult classic. Instead of seeing this as a throw-away opportunity, they seized it, composing a lapidary track with sharp rhythms contrasting lush strings arranged by Johnny Mandel, something they'd never tried before. The lyrics satirized the very medium that had made them millions, biting the hand that fed them as surely as Elvis Costello had with Radio, Radio. It's a song that I never listen to just once, and I bought the double-album Greatest Hits mainly for the purpose of listening to it over and over. Way to Hoover my wallet, boys. 

Then came Hey Nineteen, the next betrayal. From the toothless guitar sting that opened the song (and at which my older brother marveled - kiss of death), to the old-man tale of woe conveyed in the lyrics, this was a bridge too far. Also, if Aja seemed polished, this was another level altogether. I was not alone in thinking that way - even Rob Sheffield, who just penned a beautiful tribute to Becker (and John Ashbery) wrote as late as 2006 that Gaucho was "so slick it slid right off the turntable into the wastebasket." I was 16 when it came out, thinking I knew it all, and reveling in Bowie, Bob Marley and Bad Brains, I had no interest in even hearing any more of it. See where ideology will get you, kids? 

Dolly back, fade to black - then fast forward five or six years and I was a college grad with a student loan coupon book trying to make ends meet. Which is how I ended up agreeing to do some painting in my brother's old apartment for a fee. Before setting up the tarp, rollers, paint, etc., I dug through his LP's for a soundtrack. There was Gaucho - could it really be that bad? Dropped the needle and...dun-dun, dun-dun, the bass clarinets of Babylon Sisters got their hooks in me and when Bernard Purdy's shuffle kicked in, and Fagen started singing those winking, desperate lyrics, I was sold. I had a wider palate of listening by then, including Henry Mancini and Kurt Weill's collaborations with Ira Gershwin, and I heard echoes of the glossy surface in college classics like Roxy Music's Avalon and Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche '85 - other artists were catching up and showing the way. I had also read William S. Burroughs (from whence had come "Steely Dan") and Raymond Chandler (from whence comes all L.A. Noir). Finally, I had a little more life experience under my belt, just enough "adulting" to find myself even in Hey Nineteen, laughing heartily at "the Cuervo Gold/The fine Columbian" refrain that ends the song.

Glamour Profession further sealed the deal with its laconic opening refrain: "6:05/Down at the stadium/Special delivery/For Hoops McCann/Brut and charisma/Poured from the shadows/Where he stood..." - I wonder now if that was more of Becker's telegraphy. It's amazing I got any painting done before flipping the disc. The title track hearkened back to Katy Lied with a compassionate sax and complex lyrics about friendship - another triumph. So Gaucho was firmly in the canon, followed by silence. 

The Becker/Fagen partnership seemed to have dissolved. Fagen scored a hit with The Nightfly, an autobiographical album with heavy Dan overlap but a more straightforward approach, even including a Motown cover - further clues, at least by omission, to Becker's hand in the compositional side of things. Becker himself was off the map for a while, with rumors of drugs and a semi-retired life in Hawaii, followed by signs of life as a producer of everyone from China Crisis to Rickie Lee Jones. 

The decade turned again, and amidst the welcome rumblings of Nirvana, the flowering of the golden age of hip hop, and the atmospherics of trip hop, came a new Donald Fagen album, Kamakiriad, a sleek sci-fi song cycle produced by Becker. I was surprised by the emotional resonance on Kamakiriad, especially in the latter half, including the Becker co-write Snowbound. He also played bass and lead guitar on every track, leading to an immediate call to my cousin where I enthused about the album: the moody, futuristic songs and the gorgeous sound, concluding with: "And Walter Becker has become a MONSTER on bass!" Yes, the guitar work was impressive, but as a bass player myself I was astounded by the combination of technique and feel he put on display. I remembered all the self-deprecating remarks I had read in interviews, how they hired Chuck Rainey and his ilk because there was no way Becker could play that well. Obviously, the man had used his hiatus wisely, woodshedding his way into glory. I felt a surge of vicarious pride. I always knew he was selling himself short! 

The Nineties also included the release of Becker's first solo album, 11 Tracks Of Whack, which I didn't give much time to, finding his singing voice a little too idiosyncratic for my taste. Listening now, I hear a wry warmth and the inflections of a wisdom perhaps too hard-earned. Plus, most of the songs are excellent. Sorry, Walter. 

By the dawn of the new millennium, the Dan was something my brother and I shared and, during a visit to his office he surprised me by putting on Two Against Nature, the first Steely Dan album in 20 years.  It was shockingly good from the jump and I remember saying to my brother: "They sound happier." That was true, but time had not dulled their incisiveness and the album was filled with dubious characters like Cousin Dupree, Janie Runaway, and Jack Of Speed. It sold in the millions, won a Grammy for Album Of The Year, and soundtracked my year, which is when it occurred to me: Becker and Fagen were as uncompromising in their approach as any of my beloved avant gardists like Pere Ubu or Public Image. 

They were able to put shifting harmonies, complex chords, diabolically clever lyrics, virtuoso soloing and a bad attitude into a package that millions of people loved - without ever caring whether or not they had an audience. They tried to satisfy themselves above all, pressing on in the face of some pretty dire critical responses. Besides the Sheffield quote above, consider they way their entry in the first Rolling Stone Record Guide ended: "Not the greatest American rock band (by a long shot), Steely Dan remain unquestionably the weirdest." Did they have to add that "by a long shot"? 

While I say they didn't care about their audience, that's not quite accurate. I saw them three times in the 2000's and they always seemed genuinely delighted that people were still interested enough - and passionately so - to come out night after night. One of my favorite moments from those shows was at Roseland Ballroom when they pulled out Don't Take Me Alive, that deep cut from The Royal Scam about a man who has taken hostages. They went into the first chorus: "I'm a bookkeeper's son/I don't want to shoot no one," and when we all started singing along, they rocked back from their mics in astonishment, grinning delightedly, and let the audience sing the rest. I realized in that moment that acceptance is a two-way street. As much fun as it was for me to be in their cool kids club, they could also take pleasure in being among their people. 

There was one final album, 2002's Everything Must Go, which was perhaps even better than Two Against Nature, although it didn't cause as much of a stir. As Fagen pointed out, "second album in 22 years" isn't as good a marketing hook as "first album in 20 years." It caused a seismic shift in my household, however, becoming the gateway album for my wife who had always been a Dan refusenik. I think I may have forced her to listen to Things I Miss The Most, so full of telling novelistic detail that she couldn't help but relate, and then we were off and running. "They've become the voice of a generation," she remarked in the car once, referring to that song along with The Last Mall and the title track, which limned the dot-com bust like a Douglas Coupland short story while seemingly predicting the financial depredations of 2008. There was also the fun of Pixeleen, with its cyber-heroine and her "flash of spectacular thigh," leading to the image of Becker and Fagen watching the first season of Alias like the rest of us. 

Slang Of Ages featured a lead vocal from Becker for the first time, which I admit took some getting used to, but eventually integrated itself into the album as a whole, partly on the strength of wicked one liners like "Damn, she skipped dimensions/Was it something that I said?" and the uncanny blend of his wry rasp with the ever-tasteful backup singers. Everything Must Go also ever-so-slightly loosened the reins, leading to a more charged and dynamic album than Two Against Nature. 

While Steely Dan had gone on the road in 93 and 94, it was in the 2000's that they became true tour bus denizens. They booked extensive live dates every other year, including residencies at New York's Beacon Theater, where they were the only potential rivals to the legendary stands by the Allman Brothers. It was there that I saw them for the last time, performing Aja straight through as well as a set of other favorites. It was as excellent as the other shows I had seen, with Becker in fine form on guitar, holding his own alongside a fiery Jon Herrington, and delivering his usual Hey Nineteen monologue with aplomb.

Somewhere amidst the touring, Becker managed another solo album, Circus Money, which had its moments, especially in the impressively assured reggae numbers - I guess all those Culture CD's proved effective! However, that album along with Fagen's enervated Morph The Cat only heightened my desire for them to create together again. Alas, it was not to be. 

While there is more in the vaults than we were originally led to believe (including The Second Arrangement and Kulee Baba, both wonderful Gaucho outtakes), the moment has come for acceptance that what we will know about Becker and his achievements has already been revealed. Or, if not exactly revealed, such are the layers of obsfucation and misdirection in his output, at least made available for our delectation. There's more than enough there to keep us listening, laughing, pondering, and marveling at least until California tumbles into the sea. 

Here's a playlist of deepish cuts from the Becker/Steely Dan catalog, many of which are my personal favorites. What are yours?


A note on concert recordings: Unfortunately, the only official live album Steely Dan has released (so far), Alive In America, from the 1994 tour, was a misfire. The sound quality was only OK, many guitar solos were marred by the overuse of a chorus pedal, and, perhaps most damning of all, drummer Dennis Chambers seemed to be having a rare off night. I've listened fairly extensively to bootlegs over the years and the one I keep returning to was recorded in Dallas on the same tour and featuring the same musicians, but with far more satisfying results. It's also twice as long. Seek it out for its full, rich sound and committed performances, especially a blistering Bodhisattva and a molasses-slow, dreamy take on Third World Man.

*From an interview with Dave DiMartino