Monday, November 28, 2016

From Warhaus To Your House

At this late, post-postmodern date, most hints of originality come from putting old things together in new ways. Another way to spin things anew is by drawing on aspects of influential figures that may seem secondary to most. For example, if I told you that Maarten Devoldere's new project Warhaus was indebted to Leonard Cohen, you might first think of poetic lyrics, then a certain bruised romanticism, and finally an unconventional voice unafraid of its own limitations. While those facets of the late, great Canadian are indeed part of what makes Warhaus's album, We Fucked A Flame Into Being, a masterpiece, the first thing that came to mind as it revealed itself to me was Cohen's louche, Euro swagger. This kind of confident, stylish magnetism is all too rare in rock these days, more often evident in hip hop and R&B. 

Devoldere's other avatars on WFAFIB are Coney Island Baby-era Lou Reed, the Iggy Pop who waxed Tonight and Turn Blue, Dylan's dry, snarling wordplay, and the Stones at their most outré. If Bowie's Dirty Boys made an album, it might sound a bit like Warhaus. These aren't necessarily the overused influences most people draw from these artists, which is refreshing. Even if these touchstones are familiar they feel new here, partly as a result of the sound of the record. There's an almost tactile quality given to the air between the instruments which, could be due to the fact that  - if this short and brilliant documentary is to be believed - much of the album was tracked on a slightly broken down river boat in Belgium. Groovy percussion (gotcher cowbell in spades), spidery guitar, propulsive rhythms, and heavily processed horns are all sonic signatures that make Warhaus distinctive.

There's also Devoldere's tight songwriting, which would make these songs memorable even if he bashed them out on a guitar with four strings and a couple of bullet holes. He's been honing his craft for a while as a member of Balthazar, a solid if somewhat unfocused indie band from Brussels. The attention they've attracted, mainly in Europe, is no doubt a credit to more than just being the most rocked up thing from Belgium since Plastique Bertrand. But Devoldere's time on the river has elevated his art into the highest echelons, launched on gloriously shocking lines like "I've got one hand on a Champagne-drinking cunt/I've got the other up the ass of the establishment/And I can't even distinguish which hand is which/God knows, I tried to be against the rich." 

The fact that he can spew such a bilious screed while still maintaining our sympathies is another indication of the razor's edge Devoldere rides throughout the album. At the end of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, from whence this album's title comes, Mellors writes to Connie: "We fucked a flame into being. Even the flowers are fucked into being between the sun and the earth. But it's a delicate thing, and takes patience and the long pause." So if you get a little burned or bloody while listening to Warhaus, be patient and let the blossoming beauties within heal you. Besides, you were warned that rock & roll is dangerous. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen

"There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen, Anthem

"I know you're really great," a Columbia Records exec once said to Leonard Cohen, "but are you any good?" The answer, thank god, was no. Cohen was no good at being a cog in the pop music machinery that keeps the music business humming. He was no good at being at toeing the folk music line, moving further and further away from being a guitar-toting troubadour into his own chilly blend of synth-noir-gospel-muzak. In fact, the transition from Various Positions, the 1984 album that contains the original recording of Hallelujah, to 1992's The Future (via I'm Your Man, 1988), is a quieter but even more startling musical transformation than when Bob Dylan went electric.

I think it may have been Various Positions that caused that uncomfortable conversation with his label boss in the first place. Perhaps it was at that same meeting that Cohen was informed that Columbia was done releasing his albums in the U.S., putting out the album on Portrait, a subsidiary label, and only in Canada. How ironic that the album that contains one of Cohen's most covered songs wasn't deemed fit for wide release. I guess those head honchos were not yet aware of the "long tail" - and it's a good thing John Cale buys import records!

The Columbia guy was right about one thing: Cohen was great, one of the greatest poets to grace the world of music. There are endless lines to quote, from love songs to apocalyptic prophecies, words to puzzle over, and words to take to heart. How lucky that he could also come up with melodies, or find the right collaborators to create them, to hang his brilliant words on, and could deliver them in a voice that, post-Dylan, seemed at first rather sweet and which was always persuasive. The fact that he even tried is down to Dylan, whose example led Cohen to come back from his never-ending Greek vacation to see if there was a place for him on the folk scene.

The story I heard had him coming to New York with a sheaf of songs, hoping to get Peter, Paul & Mary or someone like that to record them. He showed up in Judy Collins's living room and tentatively strummed a few chords and sang Suzanne and one or two others. She was immediately taken with the man and the songs, recording Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag in 1966 and putting Cohen on the map as a songwriter. The next year, Collins literally pushed Cohen back on stage, launching him as a performer. We owe her a lot for being his champion, which really only worked because her engagement with his work was so sincere. "His songs carried me through dark years," Collins wrote in her autobiography, "like mantras or stones that you hold in your hand while the sun rises or the fire burns." I can relate. "It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded" - just one line that has helped me as much as therapy. Thank you for finally saying it!

Now that Cohen is gone, dead on November 10th at the age of 82, we can see his career as a whole in all it's beautiful idiosyncrasy, marvelling at the perfect capstone of his last album, You Want It Darker, which came out just weeks ago. Brilliantly produced by Cohen's son Adam, there's a pitch black slinkiness married to European and American melodic tropes (with a dash of the Synagogue on the title track) that ties up many of Cohen's virtues in a fascinating package. Speaking of packages (Cohen liked his puns), one of his virtues was his carnality, his recognition of the body - a burden and a blessing - and the leavening that lust can bring to love. The biggest clue to me that the new album might be his last were these lines in Leaving The Table: "I don't need a lover, no, no/The wretched beast is tame/I don't need a lover/So blow out the flame."

He was already singing about Suzanne's "perfect body" back in 1967, his continental sophistication making the open sexuality seem cool rather than just the fantasies of another horndog. He was like your perpetually cool older brother, a man of the world who had seen it all and done it all before you even realized it could be seen and done - and always with style, grace, compassion, and seamless craftsmanship. He was also generous, giving the many musicians on stage with him their due in charming introductions and solo spots. One of his most magnanimous acts was allowing the singer Anjani Thomas (who accompanied him on several albums, including The Future and Dear Heather) to rifle through his old notebooks and create songs based on the lyrics she found there. The result, an album called Blue Alert, is one of my favorite products of Cohen's career, and one that is criminally underrated.

On a remarkable live recording of the two of them recorded in Poland in 2007, Cohen makes a lengthy introduction, which concludes: "These are songs that Anjani and I wrote about the little places, about the little loves, about the little corners." Here's to all the little things that loom so large because they matter so deeply to each of us - Cohen was one of the few that recognized them as worthy of being the subject of poetry and song, inscribing them in our hearts and in the firmament forever. Above all, here's to Leonard Cohen's indomitable humanity, a quality I fear we shall miss with a sharper sting over the next four years.

Rather than try to outsmart the master, I'll show my gratitude with a few words from the last song on Blue Alert:

"Thanks for the dance
It's been hell, it's been swell
It's been fun
Thanks for all the dances
One two three, one two three one"

Here's a quick playlist of some of my Leonard Cohen essentials - subject to further refinement, because he deserves no less:

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood

Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol both feature photos by William Gedney
"You can't choose your blues but you might as well own them."
- from Tell Her I'm Just Dancing by M.C. Taylor

M.C. Taylor knows the wisdom of a tambourine, sunk deep in the groove like a clock carrying your burden of time. He knows the warmth of the horn section that comes in just at the right moment, perfect as the key in the lock of a lover's long-awaited return. And he knows how a few notes on a piano can speak volumes more than even the most well-turned lyric. In short, Taylor, who performs and records as Hiss Golden Messenger, is a genius record-maker as much as he is a brilliant songwriter and a gritty-sweet singer. I've met the guy a couple of times and he is as humble as can be - he would probably give credit for much of the above to his superb co-producer Bradley Cook, who certainly plays a large role. But note whose name is on the record, who calls the final shots, and who stands at the front of the stage every night. 

Your iTunes might still classify Heart Like A Levee as folk, and that is indeed where Taylor sowed his seeds since beginning the HGM project. But there has always been a drive to his music, and a lack of orthodoxy, that makes it something other than that. This is even more true on the new album, which is open to a broader range of influences than Lateness of Dancers, his breakthrough record from 2014. Tinges of a fully-owned L.A. slickness give new life to the heartland gospel-soul-folk-rock. There's also new sense of the epic and cinematic, especially on songs such as Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer and Ace of Cups Hung Low Band. The first is a ruthless engine of interlocking parts, driven forward by a tube-driven swamp fire of a guitar that I figure must've been played by either Phil Cook, Brad's brother and a frequent Taylor collaborator (and a great artist in his own right) or Ryan Gustafson, a bit of a guitar wizard who performs as The Dead Tongues. Ace of Cups starts quiet, the credits rolling over a 70mm landscape, before locking into a soaring verse that sounds like a never-ending ending. Finality is not always a static state. 

The visual quality of many of the songs comes naturally, as Taylor was inspired not only by his own life but by the "durable and humane photographic vision" of William Gedney, who traveled the world capturing complex portraits of whole communities. Gedney's archive is housed at Duke University, which is where many of these songs were premiered after the school commissioned a project from Taylor. Great realist photographers like Gedney present an alternate way of seeing the completely recognizable world. While I think these new perspectives have enriched Taylor's art, I wouldn't put too much weight on the Gedney connection - Taylor is a protean artist who keeps moving forward no matter what.

Lyrically, Taylor has gotten bolder with his mix of the imagistic, mythic, prosaic, and the literary. Cracked Window zig zags in a couple of different directions with an intuitive grace: "Monday morning early, getting the kids to school/I can fix this, babe-I can fix this, babe/I can see the ghosts coming over the tidewater plains/I don't know if I'm running." He heads into some dark territory but there is often light visible, a dewy new dawn just arriving, or close enough. From Highland Grace: "I'd been searching in the mirror, but seeing my own face didn't make it any clearer/I'd rage against the hard times while others smiled to say, "Hey, take it easy."/And lo, this little angel was standing in the rain/Oh just what I needed." Words and music both are slightly soaked in the perception of an altered consciousness. Even Say It Like You Mean It, as straightforward a country-rock song as Taylor would release, contains the lines "Desire/Like a wire/Lead the choir/Tripping on that Orange County Wine."

Likely Taylor is more tired than high, however; there's an underlying theme found in the contradiction of being a devoted family man whose growing success, while elevating him as a provider, finds him often on the road, away from the ones he loves. This comes through in As The Crow Flies, which delineates a series of tour stops and has a chorus concluding "Don't get down/You're nothing but a number," all over a lockstep groove reminiscent of Turn Out The Lights from Lou Reed's Legendary Hearts.  But there's no self-pity, he's just a conscientious man with a bent for self-examination, trying to do what's right both for his art and his family.

Although it might not help with the fatigue, one thing Taylor does to deal with his concerns is work. The deluxe edition of Heart Like a Levee comes with Vestapol, a bonus album of eight more songs "Written and produced by M.C. Taylor at home, and in various hotels and apartments." He could just have been watching Game Of Thrones on HBO Go but instead he was creating. These are spare but fully realized songs, the occasional sweetening somehow amplifying an intimacy that is a privilege to witness. It's also great to hear some of Taylor's intricate and hypnotic fingerpicking - so beautifully in evidence when I saw him perform solo in Prospect Park last summer - Elizabeth Cotten would be gratified. If you're already in the Hiss Golden Messenger camp you were probably going to go deluxe anyway, but Vestapol really delivers, unlike some bonus tracks.

Like all of Taylor's work, both Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol display a heartfelt creative spirit that is dedicated to giving people something of value. However, it doesn't always come easy, as is evident in another couplet from Cracked Windshield: "A song is just a feeling and when you make it pay the rent/Next thing that you know, you're saying something you'd never say." Least of your worries, M.C., least of your worries. 

Hiss Golden Messenger's music takes on bit of a different tone in concert, adding a roadhouse backbeat and bringing songs to new heights through ecstatic extended passages. On stage, I think the only weight on Taylor's shoulders is a white Telecaster or an acoustic guitar and it's a beautiful thing to experience. I can't wait to be there on November 15th when Taylor and Co. rock the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I highly recommend you check into tour dates near you ASAP and get to the show. You'll get the message, loud and clear.

You may also enjoy:
Long Time Coming
New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Best of 14 (Part 2)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated, And Beyond

Oceans of music are flowing in under, over, and around me. This is no last-gasp geyser, but rather the result of passionate musicians, composers, and labels pursuing musical bliss - and delivering it to us lucky listeners. In another attempt to stem the tide, here is a roundup of recent or upcoming releases in the realm of classical, contemporary and avant garde music.

Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet - Carolina Eyck with American Contemporary Music Ensemble There are so many ideas and even theories behind this music - from how it was composed to fit an LP record, to the way the names of the pieces were chosen (" scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations...) - that I am reluctant to add more words about it to the world. Beyond "You must hear this!" that is, as it is an extraordinary album. I was aware of Eyck as a theremin virtuoso, but not as a composer. In this case, she wrote the string quartet music, sometimes sparkling, sometimes melancholy, always melodic, played here by Caroline Shaw, Ben Russell (violins), Caleb Burhans (viola), and Clarice Jensen (cello), and then improvised her theremin parts while listening to the recordings. You would never know that, however, so well does it all fit together, taking you on a seamless journey as only a well-sequenced album can. While some of the sounds she causes the theremin to emit did have my wife saying "Getting spooky!" there are almost no clichés to her use of this early electronic instrument. It often sounds like the human voice and, in fact, and I've never experienced the bass tones of the theremin as she plays them here. I strongly recommend you find a real stereo with which to listen to Fantasias. Kudos to producer Allen Farmelo for the technical wizardry and for the literate and fascinating liner notes, including thoughts on dragons and Derrida. This is one of the records of the year - and you can hear it live for the first time on November 4th.

Ice & Longboats - Ensemble Mare Balticum For more journeys in a Scandinavian vein, set sail with these meticulously researched (yet still speculative) performances of ancient music (1200-1582) from that region, on recreated instruments. It's highly atmospheric, sometimes hypnotic, and only the merest bit kitschy. Anyone making a movie or TV show about Vikings - here's your soundtrack.

Taylor Brook: Ecstatic Music - Tak Ensemble Based on Ice & Longboats, Vikings liked strange and dissonant sounds on occasion, which makes me think they would have liked some of this album. Brook likes to push the envelope, employing extended and techniques to produce music which never becomes quite familiar even upon repeated listens. The title track has a ritualistic, theatrical sound that is highly evocative, violin and percussion combining to sound like much more. The use of "microtonally tuned guitars" as drums probably helps in that regard. The sense of theater continues with Five Weather Reports, a song cycle with words from David Ohle's cult novel Motorman. Charlotte Mundy does a remarkable job with the vocals, switching from spoken word to soprano flights on a dime, all perfectly pitched, with command and humor. Mundy is also great with the vocalise of Amalgam, the last piece, but then all of the Tak Ensemble members show complete commitment to Brook's conception, turning in sympathetic performances (including using his guitar machine) that are further proof that it's a wonderful time to be writing challenging, original music. Let your ears be sympathetic as well, especially the first time you listen - the rewards of Ecstatic Music are many.

Garden of Diverging Paths - Mivos Quartet Taylor Brook's music also features on this album by Mivos, an adventurous group whom I discovered because of their gorgeous collaboration with vocalist Zola Jesus. Here they play three works based on the written word, starting with Brook's title piece, which is based on a short story by Borges and uses imaginary theories and histories to create music that sounds alien and ancient at once. Andrew Greenwald, who co-directs Ensemble Pamplemousse, contributes A Thing Is A Hole In A Thing It Is Not, a single movement of scratchy, scrapey and high-pitched sounds that somehow holds together. The title is from a remark by conceptual artist Carl Andre and keeps you guessing as much as the music does. Greenwald has also produced arrangements of this work for two cellos and even solo euphonium - check it out. The final work, Nadja, finds the Mivos joining forces with the composer, Kate Soper, who sings vocal parts drawn from Tennyson, Ovid, and Breton. Even in the quiet moments, this is fiercely engaging listening, and Soper is in fine form. This whole collections more than lives up to the "adventurous" tag I hung on the Mivos above. Now it's your turn to be adventurous and listen.

Ginastera: One Hundred - Yolanda Kondonassis, Oberlin Orchestra, et al If you're crying for more Argentina in your life after listening to the Borges-inspired piece on the Mivos album, have I got a record for you. As the title makes plain, Alberto Ginastera was born 100 years ago, which means he began composing at a critical time in the development of a distinctive Argentinian culture. The central tension between the rural (old) and urban (new) was an animating force in much of the music and art of the time and Ginastera rode the line in fine style. His Harp Concerto, performed here with extraordinary skill and feeling by Yolanda Kondonassis, is the definitive large-scale work for her instrument. Ginastera surrounds the harp's sparkle with colorful, wonderfully evocative melodies, harmonies and orchestration. One thing that makes the Concerto special is the way he both pushes the harp into new territory and exploits its familiar qualities perfectly. Kondonassis couldn't have asked for a better partner than the Oberlin Orchestra under the direction of Raphae Jiménez. Actually she did ask for it as she executive-produced the album. She must have a hell of a Rolodex, too, as the other works are performed by the likes of Gil Shaham, Orli Shaham, and Jason Vieaux, who are all the best at what they do. The Sonata for Guitar is a late work for Ginastera, composed in1976, seven years before he died. It seems to synthesize many of his ideas about the past informing the present and Vieaux's playing is preternaturally assured, dashing off the intricate work with the flair of a gaucho troubadour on horseback. The Shaham siblings acquit themselves nicely in the romantic and slightly jazzy Pampanea No. 1 and Orli digs into the cutting-edge virtuoso charms (two keys at once? We got that!) of Three Danzas Argentinas to close the album. Kondonassis has done a service to Ginastera's legacy with One Hundred and we are the  beneficiaries of her advocacy. I would say if you own one record of Ginastera it should be this one - however, I think you'll want more after hearing this. 

Simple Gifts - The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center As it happens, Ginastera studied with Aaron Copland on a Guggenheim fellowship in the 40's, learning much about how to push harmonies further while still keeping your music accessible. Appalachian Spring, Copland's score for a Martha Graham ballet, is Exhibit A for this approach, feeling as American as corn on the cob without being corny, thanks to its spare, modern design. This is much like the Shaker attitude towards design and architecture, which makes their furniture and buildings look so timeless and inviting. Of course, Copland's masterpiece has been recorded dozens of times, including a fairly definitive account conducted by the composer and recorded in glorious Living Stereo in the early 60's. But here we have what may be the best version yet. Marketers at Lincoln Center would like you to know that it was recorded live "in the heart of an authentic Shaker village," and filmed for broadcast on PBS. This is a first, apparently, and maybe it did inspire the musicians to new heights. The tempos are perfectly judged, the dew-limned opening notes flowing into one of the great slow builds in music, kept so taut that you're on the edge of your seat even if you've heard the work many times, and the full gallop is as thrilling as it should be. The sonics are delightful as well, with clear textures, a wide dynamic range, all the detail you could want - and no audience noise, not a cough or a creaking chair, intrudes. Until the end, that is, when the crowd explodes, seemingly fully aware that they had just heard something special. Due to my own particularities, the rest of the album, which includes short pieces by Louis Gottschalk, Samuel Barber, Dvorak, Mark O'Connor and Stephen Foster, is basically superfluous. Everything is performed brilliantly - the CMS is a band of virtuosos - and if you like the music you'll love this recording. I also loved reading the excellent liner notes and learning that Barber was a fan of Edie & Rack, the 1940's piano duo - I've never seen their names anywhere except on singles that I found in my grandmother's collection after she died. Perhaps she and the composer of Adagio for Strings crossed paths at the Blue Angel Club...but I digress. This is the Appalachian Spring to hear, so make a plan and get it done. That's the American way.

Restless - Ken Thomson If Copland is bit on the modern side for you - but you like it - here's a quick catapult into the 21st century, and I promise a painless flight. Throughout this album, composer Thomson displays a muscular approach to romanticism that is shorn of sentimentality - this is emotional music, but free of bathos or ornamentation. Restless, a four-movement work for cello and piano, sounded perfect the first time I heard it, as if it had always been there, but also very fresh. Think of your favorite room, and imagine it as it was when it was new - that's Restless, with the fourth movement being the dark corner you don't visit often. Part of its indomitability must be due to the spectacular playing of Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano), who sound like much more than a duo. Bathgate is a Bang On A Can luminary, so I would expect no less, but Larson is new to me, and it is he who is in the spotlight on side two (like Eyck's Fantasias, this was conceived as a vinyl album). Me Vs., a three movement work for solo piano, can be spikier and more fragmented than Restless but still feels inevitable and deeply involving. Thomson has done something very special here, and while these recordings and performances are already ideal, I hope to see both of these pieces enter the repertoire on record and in the concert hall. Think I'm blowing smoke? Come to Le Poisson Rouge on November 9th for the album release concert and hear for yourself.

Westside Industrial - M.O.T.H. Like most of the records discussed here, there is more than meets the ear to Westside Industrial. If you're interested, you can look into the conceptual framework in which the project is "a narrative response to the commodification of culture and the fallout that occurs when lifestyles are turned into brands in order to sell real estate." There is a performative aspect as well, using "handwritten journal entries, voicemail recordings, poetic dialogue and photographic imagery," framing a narrative. But here we just have the music, three long tracks of "nervous ambient" (my term), created using guitars, analog pedals, radio signals and other sound generators, making for seamless audio paintings. It's quite beautiful, and the details, especially when listening through headphones, are wonderfully textural. This is the second album by M.O.T.H., the nom de guerre of Matt Finch, with 3 Vignettes from 2015 being equally worthy of investigation. Between the two albums, M.O.T.H. should now be considered to a reliable brand name of it's own. Buy in.

As always, let me know what I'm missing, and keep up with the totality of 2016 here.

You may also enjoy:
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed
Record Roundup: Classical Composure
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Bit Like Goodbye: Big Star's Complete Third

"This sounds a bit like goodbye
In a way it is I guess
As I leave your side
I've taken the air
Take care, please, take care"
- Alex Chilton, Take Care

After the Velvet Underground emerged from the mists of legend and a mostly out-of-print catalog, the next white whale was Big Star, arriving on the horizon of my consciousness through pre-Internet research, tipped off by The Replacements. This consisted of looking through defunct editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and the magazine collections my friend Mike and I found in our older brothers' closets. I distinctly remember reading an article about Tim Buckley in Creem and thinking "Is this a hoax?" It was years before I heard the glorious reality, but that's another story.

I did find some references to Big Star, just tiny glimpses usually including the words "power pop" and "Beatlesque." When I finally heard anything it was just a few songs on an Alex Chilton compilation someone had. Kizza Me was on there, and Downs, but it was mostly shambolic solo songs like Bangkok and Like Flies On Sherbet, most of which I liked in various degrees while remaining unaware of the provenance of any of the material. Kizza Me was especially great, sort of a Stooges song for daydreamers, with bonus cello. As far as influences go, I could hear a hint of The Beatles, especially in Chilton's high, vibrato-less tenor and his way with a melody. I was also distracted by trying to connect this guy with the guy who sang The Letter by The Boxtops. To be honest, I'm still working on that part.

Time went on. I got married, got a CD player, felt lucky to find Pere Ubu and Wire on the shiny plastic discs, but still no Big Star. Then Rykodisc came on the scene, sort of a Criterion Collection (yes, I eventually got a laserdisc player, too) for music, with beautifully presented reissues that included all kinds of extra stuff. Which is how it came to pass that my first extended exposure to Big Star was via a semi-misrepresentational latter day collection called Third/Sister Lovers.

It's slightly ironic that what had for years been a holy grail/stepchild for Big Star fans (notwithstanding a limited release on PVC Records) was right there in Tower for $18.99. And it was fantastic, if a bit messy. Songs like Thank You Friends and Jesus Christ were instantly indelible, sing-in-the shower classics, while Kangaroo, Holocaust, Big Black Car were grimly gorgeous ventures into the heart of darkness. I was hooked and evangelized heavily, killing music by passing out many homemade cassettes. The indie-level success of Rykodisc's reconstruction was unharmed by my piracy and finally led Saul Zaentz to stop not dancing and let Fantasy reissue Big Star's Number One Record and Radio City on one CD.

That's when the true majesty of Big Star exploded in my living room. September Gurls, Feel, 13, Back of a Car, In The Street, Feel The Sunshine. I nearly wept at the unrecognized genius contained therein: here was the Beatlesque power pop I had been promised and so much more. How could these records have failed? No wonder Chilton was going blotto and singing about Holocausts a couple of years later. Reading the credits educated me to the fact that there were actually three Big Stars: Mark I with Chris Bell making it a quartet and playing McCartney to Chilton's Lennon - or was it vice versa? Then there was Mark II, a trio after Bell and Chilton parted ways, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens still holding down the rhythm section. And then there's Mark III, which was whatever the hell is happening on Third/Sister Lovers.

Now we have the final word on that period in Omnivore Recordings magnificent three-disc set, Complete Third. Interestingly enough, Chilton wasn't even sure this was a Big Star album he was making. Jody Stephens was still there, drumming on some songs (and contributing the sweet yearning of For You) but there was no band per se, just a rotating cast of Memphian characters, most notably production savant Jim Dickinson, bringing to fruition an astonishing batch of Chilton originals.

Just how amazing the raw material was is fully evident on Disc One, which features mostly solo demos with Chilton accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or piano with occasional overdubs. Many of these were available on Keep An Eye On The Sky, the lavish career overview that came out in 2009, but I admit to rushing through them at the time. It may have been that I thought them superfluous or I just got overwhelmed by the wealth of material, including a wonderful live show from 1973, which became a daily listen. But now their brilliance has fully dawned on me. In fact if these recordings were as far as Chilton got they would constitute a great lost album in their own right. The sheer musicality that pours from Chilton will stop you in your tracks - remember to breathe while listening.

If anything, Chilton had grown as a songwriter, having lost some of the tics that showed up on the first two albums, making for songs that are elegantly constructed, curvaceous yet sturdy like Art Deco sculpture. As Chris Bell noted at the time, Chilton had come even more under the influence of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, adding both toughness and despair. There are strong emotions animating them, running from joy to despair, but there's a sense of distance, as if Chilton was holding the feelings at arm's length. These are rough drafts, yes, with some vocal hiccups and the obvious awareness that arrangements would put flesh on their bones, but this is what co-producer/engineer John Fry, who had worked on the first two albums, and Dickinson had to work with.

We can also hear a taste of who Dickinson and Fry had to work with on a track called Pre-Downs, a bunch of enervated noodling with someone (mercifully off mic) murdering T For Texas while Chilton giggles. Eventually he calls for Baby Strange, the T. Rex song, and it's awful, out of tune and ragged, finally breaking down entirely into a drum solo until Chilton yells "Enough! Enough of this drum ego trip!" Not exactly what you'd hope for from a guy who'd been in recording studios since his teens. According Cheryl Pawelski, whose archival work here should earn her whatever awards are given for that sort of thing, this is just a small excerpt - and it's quite enough.

Then we get the first band demo of Big Black Car and it's not much better. Chilton sounds barely interested, even contemptuous, turning the bridge into a spoken word joke. After a few listens it occurred to me that he might have been terrified. He must have known that he had a batch of great songs, some even extraordinary, but he'd been there before, in that same studio, slaving over brilliant material, and look where it had gotten him. The self-doubt could have been crippling, wondering if by trying to produce final versions of these songs, he was killing them, like gassing butterflies just as they emerge from their cocoons.

But he powered through, numbed out on downs ("our favorite kind of drug," reports Lesa Aldridge, Chilton's girlfriend at the time - and co-writer of Downs, the wacky, sardonic song that kicked off the project) and drink, and aided by the heroic efforts of Dickinson and Fry. Gradually, things began to take shape, with Dickinson's intuitive methods bringing songs like Kangaroo and Holocaust into new sonic territory, with spectral mellotron and spidery guitars, and Fry's pop classicism adding backing vocals and concision.

Through various rough mixes and alternate takes we get an X-Ray of the choices made along the way, and they were mostly good ones. Jody Stephens made a crucial contribution when he asked a string arranger to sweeten up his song, For You, which we also get to hear Alex sing in a pretty good version, heard here for the first time. Chilton liked the sound so much that he had strings added to a number of songs, becoming a key part of the sound. This is how Lovely Day became Stroke It Noel, named for the violinist on the song. Probably the biggest quibble I have always had is with the final version of Femme Fatale, which I never fully bought into. The acoustic demo was not improved by Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper jumping on the track or by Lesa Aldridge's unnecessary "Elle et un femme fatale" on the chorus. It reminds me of the time Paul McCartney tried to "improve" Don't Let Me Down with vocal counterpoint. Lennon was wise enough to put the kibosh on that - apparently Chilton was going to do the same but Dickinson convinced him otherwise.

Even in his damaged state, Chilton managed to participate quite a bit. "Let's start off with just a verse of me playing the guitar," he says at the start of the "Dickinson Rough Mix" version of Take Care, "and everybody fooling around, and we'll save that for some kind of juicy little instrument later, okay? So y'all fall in." This was the germ of an arrangement that would become a chamber-pop gem in the final version, with strings and horns providing the "juiciness" Chilton envisioned. This is just one example of the transformations we can now hear happening before our ears, the butterflies spreading their wings. 

But to describe Dickinson and Fry's work as heroic does not overstate the case. They polished up the songs, sequenced them, made a test pressing, and shopped it around. That turned into a farce as they were met with derision and contempt by people like Jerry Wexler. Chilton was out of the picture by that point, too dissolute to do more than weakly protest their efforts, never approving of a sequence, a title, or cover art. His career, such as it was, never recovered until a late career lionization that was well-deserved - and sometimes great - but based on past glories. He never wrote songs this good again. (Solo Chilton boosters - feel free to write your hate mail on a box top and send it to the Dead Letter Office).

In any case, thanks to Omnivore's efforts, I can now make my perfect version of Third. It will include the demo of Femme Fatale and get rid of all other cover songs, especially the rotely rocking Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On. Newly unearthed versions of I'm So Tired, Don't Worry Baby and After Hours, all featuring Lesa on vocals, are intriguing but certainly not final cut material. You can hear my version here or below - feel free to share yours.

So is Third or Sister Lovers or whatever you want to call it a Big Star album? The closest I can come to a definitive answer is that it is a collection of songs written by Alex Chilton in a style reminiscent of Big Star. Or maybe I should just quote Kizza Me's insouciant rejoinder and say "why not?" You might also ask if this essential reissue is overkill for the casual Big Star fan - but have you ever met a casual Big Star fan?

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.

A few years ago I was very nearly convinced that there was a generational divide about guitars. The six-stringed wonder seemed to be less and less relevant to people who came of musical age in the 80's and 90's, which made me slightly sad, I'll admit. Don't get me wrong - I love synthesizers, sampling, turntablism and all kinds of studio trickery, and I'm certainly not advocating a return to guitar hero wankery. I just feel that there is a unique disturbance to the air caused by strings vibrating in some kind of interval-based tuning, whether over a magnetic coil pickup or a soundhole, or both. Acoustic, electric, six or 12 string, solo and in combination, I just really, really like guitars.

Now I see I needn't have worried. This year there's been an explosion of good to great guitar albums and bands, some of which (Cian Nugent, Car Seat Headrest, Wire) were among my best of the year so far. What follows here is a quick tear, in no particular order, through some of the other guitar-driven jams that have been getting me out of the fug of 2016 on a regular basis. Politics, schmolitics, let's tune up and plug in. Rocking out is optional.

Exmagician - Scan The Blue This is the sound of a couple of music lifers finding their sweet spot. A little too clean to be shoegaze, but with some of that propulsion, and not bombastic enough to be Britpop but with some of that melodic grandeur. Job Done should be a hit and there's not a bad song to be found. 

Journalism - Faces I may be the only one I know for whom this was a long-awaited debut. I enthused a few years ago when Denim Jesus showed up on SoundCloud, immediately impressed with its power, polish and wit. While they played a concert now and then, I wasn't really sure if they were a going concern. Who knows what the deal was - in any case the full length is here, nine driving rock songs with a psychedelic edge. This is what rock radio should be playing. 

Pale Dian - Narrow Birth I stumbled on these guys when they opened for Cheatahs last time I was in Austin. Like the headliners, they were monumentally loud, but I was able to discern a sweet interplay between the guitar and synth, along with a gift for well-turned melodies. When the album came out, I was a tiny bit disappointed that it sounded so familiar: a little bit of MBV and JAMC, a touch of Siousxie, some Blondie. So they're noise-pop classicists in the end, but they do it very well. Great production, too. 

The Stargazer Lilies - Door To The Sun The Lilies were touring with Pale Dian so I cued them up, even though I couldn't make it to the show - yet another way I discover new music. It's easy to see why they were put together, as they strike a lot of the same chords as Pale Dian, with perhaps a touch more originality. When is the split "Pale Lilies" single coming out? Or do people not do those anymore?

Nap Eyes - Thought Rock Fish Scale I fell down a defunct blog's rabbit hole one day, reading years of passionate (if slightly amateur) collective criticism about bands that were mostly unsatisfying when I actually heard them. Eventually I hit on Nap Eyes, liked it, found out they had a new album out and liked it even more. There's a new naturalism to their songwriting, that falling-off-a-log ease that is usually hard-won. However they got to this point, it's a delightfully heartfelt album of smart indie rock. You could be their next devoted fan.

Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing So she has famous parents - that doesn't mean her tunefully awkward pop is a put-on or any less charming. While I don't bond as closely with her songs as I do to, say, Hospitality's, she hits some of those targets. She'll probably only get better, too, unless she decides to enter the family business and become an actor.

Tacocat - Lost Time Frankie Cosmos definitely owes a debt to these guys, who have been plying their punky trade for nearly a decade. Lost Time is probably their most "accomplished" album - but don't worry, they haven't killed the fun. It just means that the songs don't meander so much and the sound is better, so you can enjoy the Riot Grrrl rush of songs like I Hate The Weekend all the more easily.

Feral Conservatives - Here's To Almost Okay, so it's not a guitar that Rashie Rosenfarb is strumming but her electric mandolin provides the same pleasures. Great songs, too, and you can read lots more words about this album by me and others on Off Your Radar. Subscribe while you're there, won't you?

Self Defense Family - Colicky Speaking of Off Your Radar, I have my colleague Drew Necci to thank for introducing me to this dark-hued post-punk-referencing group, who have been releasing music under this name since 2011. For It Isn't Very Clear, Is It? alone, Colicky is my favorite of the three EP's and two singles they've put out so far this year, but if you put all the songs in a playlist you'll have a damned good album.

Scott & Charlene's Wedding - Mid Thirties Singles Scene While I'm not connecting as strongly to this album as I did to their last, Craig Dermody still has a way with slightly off-kilter jangle and clever lyrics and everyone should know about this band.

Parquet Courts - Human Performance Even those these Brooklyn sort-of slackers sell out every show in minutes, I somehow think they're underappreciated, taken for granted - even by me. This is easily their best and most varied album since they broke through with Light Up Gold. There's a little more humor and self-deprecation here, as well as clever instrumentation. Dust, Berlin Got Blurry, One Man No City and the title track are all seriously sticky songs that betray new strengths, and Steady On My Mind has some truly velvety guitar interplay. Don't count them out.

Omni - Deluxe While Omni, like some of the other bands here, might be a little too comfortable in their post-punk niche (hell, they even have a song called Wire), this debut is still a terrific listen. Tight, colorful songs, assured playing and sharp production, all by ex-Deerhunter and ex-Carnivores members, seal the deal. If you want to read someone gush over this album, check out my old friend Tim Sommer's review - if that doesn't make you want to listen...

Big Thief - Masterpiece Calling your debut album Masterpiece and then starting it with two minutes of lo-fi wayward warbling is a fun way to play with expectations. But singer/songwriter Adrienne Lenker and co. sound like they're in it for the long haul. Her songs are sturdy and inevitable, and the band serves them well with a canny combo of straight-ahead folk-rock and mathy touches. Perhaps most importantly, Big Thief sound like they're seizing the moment with everything they've got - grab on.

The Amazing - Ambulance I guess if a band called The Amazing named their album "masterpiece" it would be overkill. But this Swedish band's last album, Picture This, was exactly that - a masterpiece - and made it to number six on my Top 20 for 2015. While Ambulance is not quite at that level and could use some of the urgency implied by the title, it's still a beautifully absorbing set of psych-rock. A sly, funky, positively noirish song called Blair Drager stands out like a captivating sore thumb, however - and may hint at new directions for these guys. Special note should be paid to drummer Moussa Fadera whose light touch and detailed playing elevate everything this band does.

Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung Walker could easily have had a great, low-key career as an acoustic fingerpicking wizard, such are his skills. But his ambitions are greater than that and on his third album he's getting closer to realizing them. Richly textured, expansive songs with wide dynamic range provide an ornate frame for his tenor, with which he is sounding more comfortable on every album. Van Morrison is an obvious touchstone here and if Walker doesn't quite have the lyrical facility of The Man at his best, at least he's pushing hard at his own limitations. Probably my favorite song is Age Old Tale - just pure hypnosis. If you listen on Spotify, don't skip the mind-blowing 40 minute(!) live take on Sullen Mind. Maybe he'll play it like that at the Market Hotel on November 3rd - or a venue near you.

Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20 I recognize that it seems almost cruelly reductive to include a master like Lucinda Williams in a roundup of this sort. But the fact is that this double-album set is full of gorgeous guitars, duet after duet by Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, both masters in their own right. Also, I will admit that the almost entirely low-key mood of this album has me reaching for it less frequently than I did Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, which had more of that driving groove that she addicted us to on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Still, many of these songs - Dust, Doors Of Heaven, the title track, If There's A Heaven - are marvels to behold. And who knows - if she tours with Stuart Mathis again, there might be even more six-string fireworks.

Dinosaur Jr. - Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not It should not be that Dinosaur Jr. made one of their best albums over 30 years after their start in 1984. But that is what we have here, people. Give A Glimpse is a celebration of both the melodic smarts of J. Macsis as well as his guitar-titan status. Gritty chords give way to liquid or wonderfully overdriven solos with a casual regularity that is dumbfounding. That sense of mastery combined with surprise is a rare thing indeed. Lou Barlow (bass) and Murph (drums) can do no wrong, providing just the right support and holding the goalposts for one game-winning kick after another. Barlow also wrote and sings on two songs and his lighter style adds some nice variety, also provided by Macsis's prettier moments. Even though they've only made 11 albums in all those years (and took a long hiatus from 1997-2005), let's face it: J. Macsis and Dinosaur Jr. are probably at least part of the reason we're still talking about guitars at all in 2016. Long may they reign.

OK, I think that's enough for now! What guitar-driven stuff has been driving you wild this year? Also, I slightly lied at the start. There is an order to this list, which is based on the way I sequenced the accompanying playlist. It was a fun challenge to blend everything together in a way that made sense. Let me know what you think.

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Sunday, October 02, 2016

Frank Ocean Goes Deep

It's profound. It's profane. It's a benediction. It's an indictment. It's intimate. It's universal. It's pop. It's art. It's soulful. It's icy. It's carnal. It's cerebral. It's wickedly funny. It's as serious as your life. Frank Ocean's Blonde (or Blond?) is all of these things, and more, and it's on the top of the charts. After a four year wait, which drove some corners of the Internet to the breaking point, we finally have a follow up to Channel Orange and it is brilliant, exceeding my expectations in every way. 

Part of the reason I love Blond is that it makes fewer concessions than Channel Orange to R&B, the genre to which it supposedly belongs. For one thing, half the songs have no drums, and on the ones that do, the percussion comes and goes. For another, guitars are the most prominent instrument - next to Oceans's glorious voice, of course. Ivy, for example, feels rich and fully realized despite just being voices accompanied by two tracks of heavily processed electric guitars. It works so well mainly due to the sophistication of Ocean's melodies, which combine with his poetic lyrics to make an intoxicating cocktail of a song. Then there's the end of the song, where he makes a hook out of a little vocal phrase that would seem bizarre if it didn't feel so good. 

The length of time between albums might imply a lack of confidence but much of Blonde is incredibly bold, including all of the different things he does with his voice. Considering that his gifts as a singer put him in the same league as Stevie Wonder (believe it), his lack of veneration for his instrument is refreshing. He pitches it up, distorts it, talks through parts of songs, and, in general, could care less about impressing you. This makes the moments when he lets rip, like the wordless passages in Solo, that much more astonishing. 

Lyrically, he's gotten bolder as well. Consider Skyline To, which kicks off like a Frank Loesser song ("This is joy, this is summer...") and then, as a reflective jazz guitar shimmers in the background, turns strikingly conversational. "That's a pretty fucking fast year flew by," he says, speaking plainly, "that's a pretty long third gear in this car, gliding on the Five, deer run across, killed the headlights," he continues in a stream of consciousness. He keeps talking: "Pretty fucking under moonlight, now, pretty fucking...sunrise in sight" - he sings the last word and we're back on Broadway - "then comes the morning hunting us with the beams, solstice ain't as far as it used to be, it begins to blur, we get older, summer's not as long as it used to be, every day counts like crazy." 

This is compressed language, heightened but completely relatable, and, in the context of a 2:37 pop song, amazing. Throw in subtexts about  sexual encounters and the effects of the drug trade on the Congo, and his achievement is  elevated from the pop realm into that of the literary. Synth clouds and squiggles float in, Ocean begins to harmonize with himself and heaven is not too strong a word for the sensation of listening. And this is just one song, picked almost at random. One day monographs and graduate essays will be written exploring the treasures of Blonde - for now, I'll just keep browsing Genius

Skyline To also continues some of the main themes of Blonde, the cut-adrift sensation of getting older, being on your own, answering only to yourself but desperate for connection, coping with work, self-worth and technology. "I may be younger, but I'll take care of you," he sings in Nikes, the opening cut (don't miss the video), a come-on to a one night stand whose glow lasts long in the lives of both people involved. The spoken word interludes also play off of these strains. Be Yourself is a voicemail from a friend's mom imploring her son not to drink or do drugs "unless under a doctor's control,"and signing off, unnecessarily: "This is mom. Call me." 

Facebook Story is an anecdote told by Sebastian, one of Blonde's producers, about a woman who left him after three years because he wouldn't accept her friend request. "I'm in front of you," he told her, "I don't need to accept you on Facebook." These snippets speak volumes about helicopter parenting and the perils of social media - issues that don't only weigh on millennials, I can assure you. Frank Ocean has straight up become the voice of more than one generation, all the while remaining an artist of great intimacy. 

A word about collaborations. Guests and samples can sink an album under the weight of misplaced star power or references that are too clever by half. No worries on Blonde - Ocean is in total command. Luminaries such as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jonny Greenwood and Kim Burrell are here, along with a children's choir and samples of everyone from Gang of Four and Elliott Smith to The Beatles themselves. However, everything is beautifully woven into a distinctive tapestry that could belong to no one else. If any collaborator deserves to become better known based on Blonde, it would be Om'Mas Keith, who has songwriting and production credits on 11 songs on the album.

The one song where Ocean takes a backseat is Solo (Reprise), a full-on feature by Andre 3000 of OutKast, who speed-raps over a soulful piano and arty synths. Depending on my mood, I vacillate between joy that someone was able to get Three Stacks in front of a microphone to feeling like it's an intrusion. I've heard it's a two year old recording so I'll chalk up its inclusion to the diaristic structure of the album, which makes a palpable presence of all living Ocean has done since Channel Orange came out.

Considering that Blonde is a vessel for four years emotions and creativity, I hope everyone who snapped up this album invests their own time to let it unfold in their hearts. Blonde is an unconventional, deeply felt, and organically original work of art. There's much more I could say about its mysteries but I'd rather let you discover them on your own. And, Frank - feel free to take your time on the next record. A gem like Blonde is well worth the wait. 

Note: Two days before Blonde came out, Frank Ocean released a "visual album" called Endless that featured a soundtrack of all new music. It is only available to watch and listen to if you subscribe to Apple Music, a sub-par service that I tried several months ago. From what I understand, Endless was a clever move on Ocean's part to finish out his Def Jam contract and allow him to put out Blonde independently. That suggests that he saved the best music for Blonde and, based on what I've heard from tinny-sounding bootleg MP3's, that is indeed the case. If and when Endless is released in a conventional fashion I will be happy to give it full consideration in a future review.

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