Friday, May 20, 2016

Sail On, Bob

It's a good thing Bob Dylan doesn't care if anyone likes his records. If you think about it, it's hard to imagine an artist with less of a chance of getting a fair shake. Now, hold on - I know what you're gonna say: he's a legend, people are going to say they love it no matter what. But is blind obeisance a fair shake? And those whose knees jerk that it's not as good as his 60's work - are they really listening? In my own case, the first listen to a new album from Zimmy can be a angst-ridden affair. Somewhat recent masterpieces like Time Out Of Mind and "Love and Theft" (not to mention the many classics from his past) have brought so much pleasure into my life and I want nothing more than to have the new one join them. It's almost too much for any record to bear - thinking about how the voice sounds, if the lyrics are any good, or if the production is too slapdash. Together Through Life, his last album of originals, was that rare thing in Dylan's later career: a merely good album. The production was too slapdash and the lyrics were often just ok. I'm still convinced Robert Hunter, who co-wrote the words to most of the songs, was the main culprit. Dylan doesn't need a co-writer - he has enough help from the ghosts of long-dead poets and songwriters. Together Through Life was a good listen with a couple of excellent songs, but it just didn't get under my skin like the three that preceded it.

The Dylan promotional machine is a fearsome affair, so even before I had heard Tempest, I had received several emails about the record and was aware of the songs Cinemax's Strike Back was using. They sounded pretty good, but that's not the same as being alone in your car, stuck in traffic, and pressing play on your iPod.

Duquesne Whistle started up and I was tense (the traffic wasn't helping), thinking my way through the song: "Wow, his voice is wrecked, but is it too wrecked? And what is it about, are the lyrics interesting? Sounds good, better production for sure, great band - man these guys swing - how about the song structure, was that bridge inevitable or a bit forced, blah, blah, blah..."

What a crappy way to listen to music.

Then the next song, Soon After Midnight, came on and, by god, he's crooning. If the guy in the car next to me on the Grand Central Parkway had looked over at that moment, he would have noticed me visibly relax in my seat. Main thought: "Oh! He can do different things with his voice!" And I spent the rest of the song actually listening to a sweet new-old tin pan alley tune. The rest of the first pass pretty much continued in the same way, over-thinking in alternation with plain listening. When it was over, I thought "Hey, you've got Soon After Midnight, Scarlet Town, then that one where a guy kills another guy and then she kills him and then herself (Tin Angel), Early Roman Kings cooked, the Titanic song was cool, and the John Lennon tribute was really sweet...hey, we've got half, maybe 2/3rds of a great album here!"

That was just the start of my love affair with Tempest. After many listens now, each song strikes me as a potential classic (except for maybe Duquesne Whistle - Robert Hunter again - which is like a light overture). The sense of a master craftsman at the top of his game and fully engaged with his art is palpable throughout the album. The wicked delight he takes in lines like "Set'em up Joe, play "Walkin' The Floor," play it for my flat-chested junkie whore," (from Scarlet Town) or "I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings," (from Early Roman Kings) quickly became my own. And there are stunning lines and gripping tales throughout the songs in the collection.

Granted, when Dylan interfaces with historical events, as on the title track and Roll On John, he comes out with some truly weird things. As far as we know, there were no brothers killing brothers or traitors and turncoats on the Titanic (though we can't be totally sure), and Leonardo Dicaprio was only in the movie. Jim Backus? He's just along for the ride*. But Bob's not writing history here, he's making art. The refrain in Tempest is of a "watchman" who "dreamed the Titanic was sinking" - perhaps that's Dylan himself and the whole song is based on a nightmare after having too much tequila and nachos while watching the Cameron flick. Or he's just creating metaphors to drive home what may be one of the points of the song, that tragic circumstances bring out the best and worst in people. What matter, after the third listen you'll be singing along and salting your Bushmill's with tears.

As for Roll On John, the line "They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth" is definitely unexpected. But it's just more metaphor - even skimming a biography of Lennon would give make it obvious that he felt stifled by being a Beatle and trapped by success. Why shouldn't Dylan include that in a song about his friend? The chorus, however, is perfect: "Shine your light, move it on, you shined so bright, roll on John." Thanks to Dylan's mastery, I now have a painful window on what Lennon's murder felt like to someone who knew him. It's a brave and personal song and I think people will be singing it for a long time, which can said of a number of songs on this wonderful album.

A note about the singing: there are people who think Dylan was never a good singer. The fact is that he is extraordinarily skilled and has only gotten better. His instrument is a shadow of it's former self, like Billie Holiday's was at the end of her career, but his phrasing - the way he elongates or clips words, pushes them into the next word or uses subtle inflections - is better than ever. Listen through the crackle, like on an old record, and there is a textbook of technique here.

Finally, the production. Working under the name Jack Frost, Dylan produced Tempest himself and it's one of his best sounding records. There is the feel of a band in a room playing together, almost casually. But I sense that is a deception, as there is a gleaming richness and depth to everything on the record that is quite beautiful and obviously considered. The band is excellent, with Tony Garnier deserving special mention for his work on acoustic bass. Dylan must like it too, as it is recorded to a fare thee well. The burnished sound is a crucial element to the hypnotic spell Tempest can cast, especially in circular songs like Scarlet Town and Tin Angel.

Even though he doesn't care who likes his albums or not, and has a conflicted relationship with the act of making records in general, I think Dylan took Tempest pretty seriously. When lines like "I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there are secrets in them I can't disguise. Come back baby, if I hurt your feelings, I apologize," are coming, you want to place them in the right setting. Bob knew he had ten good ones and did them proud on Tempest. The rest is up to you. In the words of Dylan himself: "If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday."

*Yes, Bob Dylan watched Gilligan's Island. The tear-jerker of a line is: "Jim Backus smiled, he never learned to swim, saw the little crippled child, and gave his seat to him."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

John Berry: Wild Incandescence


Incandescent JB
When you start at a school in kindergarten, by eighth grade you pretty much know every single person. So when John Berry transferred in, I spotted him right away. The fact that he had orange hair spiked to a fare-thee-well and charisma that glowed even brighter didn't hurt. But he was so wildly incandescent that many of my schoolmates stayed away from the new kid. I was immediately attracted to him, though, and when I learned he also lived above 96th Street and loved music we were fully bonded. 

John's energy level was so high that I was kind of the straight man, off to the side: "John, are you sure that's a good idea?" I would sometimes ask him when he was about to do something crazy. But most of the time I just basked in the glow and helped pick up the pieces later. 

While we lived only a few blocks from each other, our environments could not have been more different. Mine was a mid-level doorman building where we had a classic NYC apartment on the 11th floor. John's father was renting a duplex loft in a unique old wood-frame building with a diner at street level. John's domain was the whole top floor (and the roof), and the whole space was packed with old stuff, some of which might have come with the place. Even so, I noticed his guitar the first time I visited. Of course, he played guitar - I should've known. 

At the time, I was coming off years of piano lessons and considering the trombone (thanks to Ska, The Specials and A Message To You, Rudy), but I knew a drummer that I thought might want to jam with John: Mike Diamond. Since they weren't friends yet, I hatched a plot to introduce them to each other at a Joe Jackson show, with The Members opening. I don't know how many phone calls it took to arrange but I got it done and we went to the concert. I made the introductions and we took our seats, John in the middle. As soon as The Members blasted into their first song, John was airborne, pogoing in his seat like a madman - as I expected. Mike, however, was taken aback. When John went to the bathroom, the future Beastie Boy leaned over to me and said: "I think this guy's insane!" I assured him that he was cool and not to worry.

Within days, John and Mike were jamming and I had decided to take up the bass. The Young Aborigines were born, so named because we were young and we associated the word "aborigine" with a primitivism that we aspired to have in our music, in addition to the influences of post-punk, disco, reggae and salsa. Listening now to the crude recordings I have, it is impossible to ignore the vitality of John's guitar, slashing at chords or picking haunted arpeggios. He liked a lot of heavy chorus pedal on his guitar, I think for the color it added to the sound. He was totally self-taught and brought the spirit of an action painter to every song.

John Berry, Mike Diamond & Me: the "original young aboriginals"
The band proceeded by fits and starts, never quite finding its place but schooling us all in how to be a group and making us a tight unit, one that we eventually invited Kate Schellenbach to join, to add "primitive" percussion. We got more serious, putting together a 45 minute set of challenging instrumental music (sometimes challenging our own instrumental technique!) that we tried to take on the road. But soon the siren call of hardcore was heard, Adam Yauch came on the scene, and the wheels of history began to inexorably turn toward Cookie Puss, Licensed To Ill, and world domination for the Beastie Boys.

John and I stayed close until I went to college and he began to drift a little, especially after he was cut loose by the Beastie Boys due to chronic lateness and heavy drinking. Frankly, I didn't think hardcore or hip hop was really for him, which was proven later by his turn to folk, country and Americana.

We lost touch until, like so many high school friends, Facebook brought us back together. He had an idea for a book about those early days and wanted to interview me, but it never happened. We finally connected at a show of his amusing and well-executed folk art, appropriately at a bar on Berry Street in Williamsburg. He was still the same John and we had a great time, playing songs from our iPods and talking about everything. But something was off. Occasionally, our conversation just...missed, derailed by non-sequitur. I couldn't tell if he was going deaf, or had had a stroke at some point, but I worried for my old friend. I was right to be concerned, as his illness was beginning to take hold. I never saw him again.

John and I spent hours and hours together, mostly playing music, seeing shows, or trying to make the Young Aborigines coalesce. One of my favorite memories had nothing to do with any of that, however, but rather took place when I invited Mike and John to come on a ski weekend in the Berkshires. We called it the "Fresh Air Fund" for Young Aborigines - not exactly politically correct, but blame it on our youth. On the way to the country, we stopped at a Four Brothers pizza restaurant and squeezed into a corner booth with my parents. While we were certainly boisterous, we managed to give our orders without incident, but when the waitress turned to go back to the kitchen, John got that light in his eyes, raised one finger, and said, "And a booty to go!" Mike and I almost died laughing. 

It was just another moment where John went just that little bit further out, past everyone's comfort zone, and into an ether of his own making. I guess he's there permanently now. So do something silly, play an out of tune guitar like you mean it, make the next person you meet your best friend, and get a taste of what it was like to be the man I called JB. While his light can never be extinguished, it's now up to us to reflect it back into the world.

JB on the mic, reading poetry
Related Post:

All Photos (c) 2016 Jeremy Shatan

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Brian Eno: Spontaneous Hypnosis

My Oblique Strategies card says "Don't break the silence."

My parents were gone for the weekend. Rather than seeing this as an invitation to debauchery, I took it as an opportunity for experimentation of a quite different sort. Not long before, I had invested a chunk of my savings into a major object of desire at St. Mark's Sounds: the Brian Eno box set Working Backwards 1983-1973. As advertised, this magnificent monolith of vinyl contained every Eno solo album from Here Come The Warm Jets to Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. There were also two bonus discs, Music For Films Volume II and a 12" EP of rarities, including Seven Deadly Finn's and Eno's beautiful cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

On the back of Ambient #4: On Land, there was a description of "An 'Ambient' Speaker System" using three speakers, complete with a diagram. I had read it over many times, intrigued by such descriptions as "...it opens out the music and seems to enlarge the room acoustically." And now, with my parents away, I was going to try it. I disconnected one of their speakers from the living room Hi Fi and brought it to my room. 

I followed Eno's instructions (prescription?) and hooked up both terminals of the third speaker to the left and right positive connectors on my amp, creating a triangular layout in my room. "I arrived at this system by experiment," Eno writes, "and I don't really know why it works. What seems to happen is that the third speaker reproduces any sound that is not common to both sides of the stereo - i.e., everything that is not located centrally in the stereo image - and I assume that this is because the common information is put out of phase with itself and cancels out." Ok, Brian, let's give this thing a test drive...

I put on side one of On Land settled back to listen in my swiveling arm chair. Within a few minutes, before Lizard Point was even over, something happened. I was out. But not asleep. The room fell away and I was truly experiencing the music "from the inside" as Eno had hoped. The sounds assumed an almost physical form around me, with color and shape, and occupied my mind completely. This state of suspended animation continued even after the side ended. The sounds continued in my head for a few moments and I was unaware of the resulting quiet, or even of the needle lifting from the record and the tonearm swinging back to its black plastic holster.

When the room reassembled itself, I realized what had occurred. Fortunately, I had a point of reference because of my father's work with a technique of relaxed concentration in his psychiatric practice. This technique was called hypnosis, or self-hypnosis, and he used it to help people quit smoking, lose weight, or cope with stage fright without using drugs. This type of hypnosis bore no resemblance to the Hollywood swinging-pendulum-hop-like-a-bunny hooey that you might think of when you hear that word. He had taught me the technique a few years earlier to help me master my fear of math, which was causing serious problems at school, and I had never forgotten how it felt.

There was no question. Eno's speaker setup had induced a state of spontaneous hypnosis. I sat for a few minutes, stunned, even a little spooked. "No one will ever believe this happened," I thought to myself, as I quietly dismantled Eno's electronic hypnogogic and returned the speaker to the living room. Eno's system was clearly too powerful to use on a regular basis. I can only imagine what might have happened if I had bought the cassette version, which features all of On Land continuously on one side! Sceptical? Consider the fact that the diagram was omitted from the CD release of the album.

You probably don't have three speakers in your house but perhaps you can find some way to celebrate the unique achievement of Eno, born this day 67 years ago. You could do worse than to listen to his intriguing, theatrical new album The Ship, which concludes with this spine-tingling rendition of I'm Set Free by The Velvet Underground, the first cover he's recorded since The Lion Sleeps Tonight in 1975.


You may also enjoy:
Brian Eno (Which contains a shorter version of this anecdote)
Listening To Lux On West 57th



Friday, May 13, 2016

Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas


In Part 1 I wrote about Laura Metcalf's excellent First Day, one of two debut albums by cellists being released by Sono Luminus this spring. First Day is a truly lovely album, which introduced me to several unfamiliar pieces that quickly became old friends. The other album is Transitions by Michael Nicolas, and it is a horse (more like a bucking bronco, actually) of a very different, but no less compelling color. Plain truth: it's a wild ride and one that may not be for everyone - but I can't get enough.

Nicolas landed in my inbox a while ago as the new cellist for Brooklyn Rider, their first new member since they began a decade ago. That alone speaks to his technical skill and spirit of adventure, as does his membership in the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). However, Transitions, which explores the "intersection between technology and humanity," firmly establishes Nicolas as a commanding musician in his own right.

The album opens with a bang: Mario Davidovsky's Synchronism No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds. Written in 1963, this is the oldest piece on the album and a fantastic introduction to what is to come. First off, the sound is extraordinary. I feel like I'm inside the cello, surrounded by the lapidary synthesized sound of the electronics. The playing feels completely natural, musical and involving, with the electronic sounds fully integrated in a way that I haven't heard before. This may be the definitive recording of this piece and I'm glad Davidovsky, who was born in 1934, is still around to hear it.

Nicolas next stakes his claim on Minimalism with Steve Reich's Cello Counterpoint, which required him to record eight different cello parts. It's a fairly late Reich piece, from 2003, and Nicolas plays it with more of a dynamic sweep than the other recordings I've heard. I won't go so far as to say he romanticizes it, but it does feel somehow more emotionally resonant. 

That's it for the classic pieces, though. Next up is a world premiere of David Fulmer's Speak of the Spring, which takes its title from Shakespeare's Sonnet 53 ("What is your substance, whereof are you made...") Aside from some possible double-tracking, I can't otherwise hear the addition of any technology in this work. There is both delicacy and strength to the way the piece unfurls, like fine vines intertwining, and aside from a rhythmic explosion around two thirds into the eight minute piece, the mood is mainly contemplative.

You won't stay in that mood for long after Annie Gosfield's Four Roses starts up. This slamming "duo" for cello and synthesizer was written in 1997 and has some of the dark heaviness of Mario Diaz de Leon's music. It flows seamlessly into a world premiere of ...And A Five Spot, also by Gosfield and composed recently for Nicolas. In both pieces, the cello and electronics are sometimes together and sometimes at odds, creating a fascinating energy that is very distinctive. These two works combined have me very curious about Gosfield - it looks like I have a bit of catching up to do!

The penultimate track is Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Transitions, a solo cello piece Nicolas also recorded for the ICE album In The Light Of Air, which was on my Top 20 for 2015. There's nothing radically different about this new recording except for the context, which makes you realize that the cello itself is "technology," like any instrument aside from the human voice. Nicolas' virtuosity makes the cello an extension of himself, making him the ideal guide by which to experience this fundamentally mysterious music.

The electronics are back, in a big way, on flexura, another world premiere, written for Nicolas by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa. This is properly a duet between the composer and the performer. While Nicolas is playing the cello, La Rosa plays an instrument he invented called a MANO, which is like a touch panel he uses to manipulate sound, including sampled cello notes. Confused? Check out this video of them performing flexura at NYU in 2015. Whatever is going on, the music is very exciting - simultaneously spooky and light, with a sense of play throughout. La Rosa is definitely one to watch. This is very bold stuff and a stunning way to end Transitions. Michael Nicolas has truly arrived. Bravo!

Transitions will be released on May 27th but you can get a sneak preview when Nicolas performs four of the pieces, including the Gosfield and La Rosa works with the composers on hand, in a free concert at Columbia's Miller Theater on May 16th. I don't know about you, but I'm going to try to get there.

You may also enjoy:
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras

Friday, May 06, 2016

Buttonholed

Good haul for $35 - and worth an encounter with "Richard"
My Saturday plans changed. I was originally set to go to Brooklyn for the WFMU Record Fair but it turned out I needed to stay close to home. Yet the universe provides: On my way to the C-Town I stumbled on one of those multi-family tag sales and even from a distance I could see there was a lot of shiny silver media on display. My pulse quickened - what would I find?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. The wife of the guy manning the table had recently been laid off by Sony Music so they were culling their collection. I found Hendrix remasters, a nice Legacy Edition of Santana III (with this ace jam), a bunch of Birthday Party albums, Nilsson Sings Newman, Coltrane in Japan, Red Garland, an outré disco collection, and a sealed copy of A Voice On Air, among other things.

While flipping through the discs I noticed a lot of things I already have, including a copy of Live At The Gaslight 1962 by Bob Dylan. This is actually a slightly rare item, as it was sold for a limited time only in Starbucks stores. So when a guy showed up and started looking through the CD's with what seemed to be an appreciative attitude, I pulled the album out of the box and pointed it out to him. "If you're into Bob Dylan, this is a great item, and it's out of print."

"I used to be more into Dylan," he replied, "but then I read this interview." "What'd he say this time?" I asked. The gist of it was that Dylan revealed that he wasn't all that into being a protest singer and was essentially going along to get along in the early part of his career. This led to the man, whom we'll call Richard, feeling that Dylan's potential lack of sincerity made songs like With God On Our Side and The Times They Are A-Changing less interesting. "Yeah, he's always saying stuff like that," I pressed on, "but this is really special. It's Dylan in a small club, playing mostly traditional songs (Barbara
Allan, Cocaine, etc.) but he also does early versions of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right - songs people in the audience had never heard before! Plus, his guitar playing is brilliant."

Richard said he would consider it and added it to his stack. Then he popped the question: "Who's the greatest singer-songwriter of the 20th century?" I knew it was a trap, but I entered anyway with what is for me the obvious answer: "Bob Dylan." He shook his head. "Really? No, I'd have to say Joni Mitchell." Just the way he said it, I knew I was in for it. Buttonholed.


"Interesting," I said, "I respect her and everything, but something about her voice bothers me, so she's never been a favorite." "But that's just the stuff from the 60's!" he retorted, "Have you heard her albums from the 70's and 80's?" Then I knew I was really in trouble. First of all, she only had two albums in the 60's and one of them was her fairly negligible debut. Second of all, he employed the horrid rhetorical tactic of assuming my ignorance. Of course I've heard Blue and other classics from her canon. Naturally, as a music lover I would want to see what all the fuss is about. In fact, I've revisited her discography more than once, and each time I do, I get stopped in my tracks by vocal flourishes that are like nails on a blackboard to me. Strange, yes, when you consider that I love Marc Bolan to death, but taste is taste. 

I even mentioned that I had seen Joni Mitchell performing Mingus at Tanglewood, with Jaco Pastorius no less, and found it meandering at best, and only tangentially related to Charles Mingus. "Pearls before swine," Richard muttered, before coming out with "Do you read literature?" I admit I couldn't hold back my shock. Did I look like a slob? "Of course I read literature," I replied with a little bite. "Ok, sorry," Richard said, "a lot of people don't. What do you read?" "Lots of different things I said," picturing the stacks of poetry and other books in my apartment, "Phillip Levine, Philip Roth, Shakespeare, Dante, Mary Karr, contemporary stuff, I've read a lot." I should have said, Donald Goines, Suzanne Collins, and Harlan Ellison, DUDE, which would also be true.

Then he starts peppering me with quotes from Joni Mitchell songs, as if hearing a few lyrics would make me completely change my feelings about her. But now I was done. "It's all beautiful word-smithing," I said, "but doesn't really move me me, and I don't really think she is as important as Dylan." His contempt was palpable. "Do you like Prince?" he asked then. "You know," I answered tentatively, wanting to be honest but thinking of my many grieving friends, "I've never been a huge fan. Dirty Mind is super-funky and I like the song 1999, but a lot of the production seems dated now. Talented guy, great guitarist, and he died too soon, but he's not really for me." It was as if I'd said nothing. "Prince said The Hissing of Summer Lawns was one of his favorite albums," Richard told me, as if this well-worn fact would also have an effect on me - even though I just said that I didn't like Prince.

This is when I started to back away slowly and head off on my other errands. I noticed he was holding a copy of the deluxe reissue of The Bends. For some reason the whole unpleasant encounter left me cravenly trying to prove that I wasn't a philistine and my departing words were, "But I love Radiohead! Great album!" I do, and it is, but ugh.

I'm relating this story because I never want to be Richard. I seek only to help people find their joy through music. I'm never going to try to convince someone that their favorite shouldn't be their favorite or that they are wrong for liking what they like. Once I know someone has actually listened to something I'm recommending, it's almost a bonus if they take pleasure in it as well. 

While I'm not always championing the seriously obscure, I often feel like I'm going against the music industry power being put behind a few artists - just look at the "New Releases" listed on Spotify or other sites, with each and every spot bought and paid for. I don't think people should necessarily let these musicians define our times. I want people to listen beyond the obvious and take in some of the richness of the musical ferment around us. It may change their lives.

But if I'm ever being Richard, feel free to let me know!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf


Adventurous listening does not always require leaving your sonic comfort zone. Sometimes unfamiliar music can instantly become an old friend, expanding your world without shattering it. And sometimes the opposite is the case - and wonderfully so. Those are the ends of the spectrum of new music explored by two cellists, Laura Metcalf and Michael Nicolas, who will both release excellent debut albums on Sono Luminus this spring. 

First up is Laura Metcalf, who has been on the scene for a number of years now playing in the ensembles Sybarite5, a string quintet mostly known for its Radiohead arrangements, and Break of Reality, a "cello rock band" that does a spirited take on the Game Of Thrones theme, among other things.

Metcalf's First Day is something quite different from her other activities, finding her assaying eight pieces from around the world and through the centuries with the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Matei Varga. The album opens beautifully with Varga's stylish introduction to Graciela y Buenos Aires by José Bragato, an Argentinian cellist, composer and conductor who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. You don't have to know the first thing about Bragato to hear his connection to "nuevo tango" and Astor Piazzola, with whom he in fact played in the 1950's. When Metcalf joins in, her tone is flawless and warm and her rhythmic command is thrilling and almost imperious in the faster portions. Instantly you know you're in good hands with this duo, and the rest of the album does not disappoint. 

If Bragato represents the the modern, urban Argentina, later in the album Metcalf and Varga take a trip to the countryside with Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana No. 2, Op. 21. Full of folky melodies and touched with nostalgia, the Pampeana covers a lot of ground in ten minutes. But first we visit an eastern European past in Bohuslav Martinu's Variations on a Slovakian Theme, with Metacalf's approach mercifully free of schmalz. She seems more invested in the sturdiness of the old melodies than in over-emoting. Martinu's piece is essentially episodic but if you want a sonata, First Day has it with George Enescu's Sonata In F Minor, a recently discovered work written when the Romanian composer was only 17. It may have a youthful energy and sparkle, but it is a fully mature work in the romantic vein and Metcalf and Varga have done a real service by bringing it to light. 

North America and the 21st Century are also well-represented on The First Day, with Phantasie by Caleb Burhans, a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, and Hard-Knock Stomp by Dan Visconti, whose work is often performed by Sybarite5. The first lives up to it's title, with lush cello lines interacting with repetitive and ruminative piano. Visconti's is the more radical work, full of sly, bluesy riffs and some dense knotty passages, all of which Metcalf handles with ease. It's a lot of fun and the levity it injects into the album sequence is welcome. It also leads perfectly into the oldest piece here, Marin Marais' Variations on "La Folia" from 1701, one folly in dialog with another. 

The Marais is elegant, tuneful, and filled with drawing-room dance rhythms - in short, a delight. But Metcalf saves a real delight for another French piece: the closing track, Francis Poulenc's Les chemins de l'amour. This piece, from 1940, is Poulenc's setting of words by Jean Anouilh and asks the cellist to sing along as she plays. Metcalf is pure charm here, playing the waltz with absolute lightness and singing in a clear unmannered soprano. It's a most satisfying ending to a rich and rewarding album, which quickly establishes Laura Metcalf on her own as a musician of real note. Brava!

The First Day is out on April 29th and Metcalf and Varga will be playing selections on April 27th at Subculture on Bleecker Street.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Vinyl And Grit: RSD 16


There is a lot of vinyl in the world, and much of it is by Roy Ayers (and much of the rest is by Willie Bobo). That was one conclusion I came to while flipping through the stacks of wax at Superior Elevation Records in a gritty section of Bushwick this past Record Store Day. I now understand why Ayers called his group Ubiquity. I also now realize that I don't know much of his music, which is a failing I plan to rectify thanks to Spotify. 

Speaking of the streaming service, it has forever altered the way I shop for vinyl. Now I have an ongoing calculation in my head, with some kind of equation of desirability, availability, price, and condition helping me determine how I will ultimately allocate my limited budget of both cash and storage space. The end result of all of this sorting is another dialogue in my head relating to all the records I don't choose to buy, a dialogue that mostly dissipates at the end of the shopping trip. Not this time, though. Using my search terms in Spotify, I reconstructed the trail I followed as I flipped and flipped, creating the playlist below. So now I - and you - can follow up on those tangents. 

But fear not, record stores, I am still interested in buying and my time at Superior Elevation led to some very happy purchases. In fact, my wife declared it my "best Record Store Day ever!" Part of the credit goes of course to the shop itself, which is spacious, well-organized, and friendly. Superior Elevation was my favorite vendor at last year's Brooklyn Flea record fair, so I had been meaning to get out there for a while. Their RSD event was a draw, as they were celebrating their first anniversary with a rotating cast of DJ's, sales, and freebies. I also had a 15% off coupon they had given me at the Flea - good move.
Good vibes and good vinyl at Superior Elevation
Within minutes of entering I had my hands on a copy of Fotheringay's first album, which is something I've wanted for a while. Fotheringay was the band formed by Sandy Denny with Trevor Lucas after she left Fairport Convention and I like it better than anything by that band, with one perfect song after another.It wasn't the original pressing but a nice reissue on Carthage from the 80's, complete with the gatefold cover. Score.

I went through the rest of their rock section but, let's face it, that's the bread and butter of my collection. Superior has a standout soul-funk section, though, so I was elbow-deep in there for a while and finally ended up with Law Of The Land from 1973 by The Undisputed Truth. For some reason, this 70's Motown group has been left behind in the reissue boom, with much of their stuff beyond the greatest hits (Smiling Faces Sometimes, for one) largely forgotten. The thing I love about them is that they were the perfect laboratory for psychedelic-soul genius Norman Whitfield. He just lets every epic, widescreen impulse burst into perfect reality, as on the title track. There's also a great cover of Dave Mason's Feelin' Alright, which is one of those songs I can't get enough versions of. Sold.

Next up was reggae, which was a smaller section but full of interesting stuff, much of it pricy. I was very intrigued with a Gregory Isaacs collection but double checked and found that I already have it with a different cover - saved by the internet! I did find a real gem though, a Jamaican pressing of Derrick Harriott's 14 Chart Buster Hits, which is a stunning retrospective of the seminal singer-producer's biggest songs from 1962-71, including great takes on Close To Me and Have You Seen Her, along with a number of sweet self-penned tunes, many of which should be revived by contemporary singers looking for something new.

While I was looking through the jazz, the DJ was playing a fantastic late disco song that had me dancing. I asked him what it was and it was nobody I had heard of (but wish I could remember!), but he added "It's really a lost Leon Ware album," referring to the singer-songwriter-producer best known for his work on Marvin Gaye's I Want You. Before going to pay, I casually thumbed through some sale items, coming across Nuff Said, which may the great lost Ike & Tina album - coincidentally featuring six Leon Ware co-writes. It was kismet and it was $2.00 for a super-funky and consistent album. Done deal.


Another conclusion I came to before paying was that if you have any vintage Brazilian or African vinyl, you can practically name your price. I will not be cashing in on my Chico Buarque albums anytime soon, however - I like them too much! In contrast to that very expensive stock were the free albums on the sidewalk, many put out to pasture due to their rough condition. One I'm glad I grabbed was Chico Hamilton's El Chico, featuring the great Gabor Szabo on guitar, shining especially bright on a sublime version of People. Some of the album, in original mono, is unplayable - but I might never have heard it otherwise. That's the magic of record shopping, and I got a big hit of it on Saturday. How did you spend the day?



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