Thursday, July 27, 2017

NPR's Turning The Tables: Five Omissions

Kudos to NPR Music for taking on the monumental task of "turning the tables" and creating an alternative canon of the 150 "greatest" albums "made by women." I use the quotes not to be snarky but to point out the mutability and arbitrary nature of the terms "greatest" and "made by women." The first is obviously a term freighted with some subjectivity, and the second has, for NPR's purposes, now expanded to include albums like Rumors, which was made by a band including three men, or a Britney Spears album which some would argue was a form of exploitation. These criteria are discussed in a thoughtful essay by Ann Powers, which lays bare the need for this list and explains the process by which it was accomplished. The other limiter which could be questioned was the idea of cutting off the list at 1964, the beginning of what Powers calls, in quotes, "the classic album era," which leaves out many artists who may have done their greatest work before that time (can I get a witness for Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Eartha Kitt, Nellie Lutcher, Ruth Brown, etc.). Even Rolling Stone, which was a product of that same age, manages to incorporate artists from a previous time in their canonical lists.

But even accepting all of their criteria, and recognizing that a list of 150 greatest anything is going to contain some results that pander to one constituency or another, there are five omissions to NPR's list that I consider egregious. It would be very easy for me to argue about the more recent entries - is Alabama Shakes "greater" than Holly Miranda, Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Perfect Pussy, Natalie Prass, Nicole Atkins, Jenny O., Kate Tempest, etc.? - but I recognize that the closer we get to now, the more the choices depend on at least one strong advocate. Brittany Howard & co., dull as I may find them, have a number of those at NPR. So, for that reason I'm focusing here on albums solidly rooted in the 20th Century by artists whom I would argue cast an even longer shadow now than they did in their prime. It would also be fair game to question some of the choices whereby an artist had only one album on the list (is any Spice Girls record really greater than Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie & The Banshees or Odyshape by The Raincoats?), but in the interest of expanding the coverage of the list, I'm not suggesting any duplicates.
Here are are the five albums that are deal-breakers for me, presented in chronological order. I did have to bend the rules slightly to include the first - so sue me. 

Patsy Cline - Showcase (with The Jordanaires) (1961) This was a make or break effort for Cline, and maybe even for her producer, Owen Bradley. She was still finding her way, with some success, on her debut in 1957. Trouble creating a follow-up soon became a non-issue as Cline struggled to recover from a car accident. When she finally returned to the studio, she and Bradley were laser-focused on the Countrypolitan sound they had begun developing in the 50's and assembled a solid collection of songs to be their manifesto. With the Jordanaires as a perfect foil (and a better choice than the Anita Kerr Singers as used on the first album), and I Fall To Pieces, Crazy, and a re-recorded version of Walking After Midnight as their tent-pole tracks they delivered big-time. When you consider that she was only able to make one more album before her tragic death 1963, the depth of her influence becomes only more astonishing. K.D. Lang, who is on the list, essentially made her name with a carbon copy of Cline's sound, even down to bringing Owen Bradley in to make it happen. While I love Shadowlands dearly (and more than NPR's choice, Ingenue), attention must be paid to the originator. 

Fotheringay - Fotheringay (1970) Many would agree that Sandy Denny possessed one of the most exquisite instruments in recorded history. And she wielded it just as exquisitely, with a remarkable combination of restraint and deep feeling. While she came to prominence as a member of Fairport Convention, it was in her second act, as putative co-leader (with Trevor Lucas) of Fotheringay, that she made her greatest recordings. Denny wrote or co-wrote six of the nine songs, all among her finest compositions (start with The Sea - it will haunt you) and sang lead on seven, including a stunning arrangement of the traditional song, Banks Of The Nile. Though Fotheringay was a short-lived group, foundering during sessions for a second album, its achievement - and Denny's - stands as a high-water mark for British Folk.

Betty Davis - They Say I'm Different (1974) As Miss Mabry, she was Miles Davis's muse. As Ms. Davis, she helped him update his wardrobe and convinced him of the value of artists like Sly & The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, which changed the course of his music - and music in general. But Davis had her own musical visions to realize, the seeds of which were revealed on the fascinating "lost album" released in 2016 as The Columbia Years. But it was when she hit the west coast and recruited members of Santana and Sly & The Family Stone to record her debut that she struck gold, kicking off a run of three albums that are almost interchangeable as far as quality goes. I picked the middle album because it's slightly more assured and features a hand-picked band of young guns, ensuring that Davis was the only diva in the studio. She perfected her combo of stuttering, shiv-sharp funk and vocals that growled, moaned, and insinuated, rarely settling for the ordinary turn of phrase. Nobody had ever heard songs like He Was A Big Freak ("I used to whip him with a purple chain,") or Don't Call Her No Tramp before, but as the missing link between Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones, Betty Davis made the world safe for all kinds of difference. 

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth (1980) Punk's Year Zero did a great job of clearing the air, perhaps bearing its greatest fruit in the post-punk era when a wondrous variety of unlikely sonics found not only release but an audience. Young Marble Giants was certainly one of the more unlikely to appear, a pair of brothers, Philip and Stuart Moxham, on bass, guitar, organ, and drum machine accompanying the waifish but curiously sturdy vocals of Alison Statton. Her singing style was seemingly unstudied, one step past saying "Is this thing on?" when approaching the mic, but also full of nuance and detail, as were her lyrics. Such songs as Searching For Mister Right, Wurlitzer Jukebox, and Constantly Changing became instantly iconic - if you were on their wavelength. Statton simultaneously occupied the role of a dispassionate observer, while still making you believe she could be your friend. Through her intimacy and sheer cool, she created a new kind of feminine avatar, and one who seemed to be in a genre of one, as did the band itself. But as with the Velvet Underground's first album, many who bought Colossal Youth put its lessons to use in later years. Courtney Love, for one, who covered Credit In The Straight World on Live Through This, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, for another, as well as recent sensations like Novelty Daughter, Grimes and Purity Ring, who ditched the marvelous Moxham brothers for a laptop, an MPC, and a loop pedal. My classic rock minded friends turned their noses up at YMG, saying it was too simple, that anyone could do it. But no one had - and in that simplicity later generations found agency. It should also be noted that Statton went on to form Weekend, which created a brand of jazzy cafe folk-rock that presaged acts like Everything But The Girl and Sade.

Laurie Spiegel - The Expanding Universe (1980) When the extraterrestrials find the golden LP that was shot into space in 1977 and manage to backward construct a turntable to play it on, I doubt they will concern themselves with the gender of the creatures that produced the sounds they are listening to, if they even have a concept of gender. However, in addition to asking for more Chuck Berry they might also request more Laurie Spiegel, the pioneering electronic musician whose work is included alongside that of the rock & roll legend, along with Bach, Beethoven, and others. The four tracks on the original Expanding Universe were recorded from 1974-1976, each piece assembled after Spiegel had painstakingly written algorithms to activate computer musical instruments developed at Bell Labs. But by the time this collection was released, some of the excitement around the golden record had died down and Spiegel was on her way to obscurity. But thanks to a knowledgeable music supervisor for the first movie in the Hunger Games series, interest was renewed in her atmospheric, richly textured work and an expanded Expanding Universe was issued revealing a far more prolific artist than we had realized. Yet even if we take just the original four tracks, especially the side-long title piece, we would have been introduced to a brave and distinctive sound-world that was far ahead of its time.

Although there are hints above, I'll leave it up to you to decide which five albums should be dropped to make room for these landmark records. The next step I would like to see is to take the 50-75 albums I love on NPR's list and use them as a cudgel to dislodge some of the shibboleth mediocrities from the Rolling Stone list. Then we might really be getting somewhere. Which albums do you think they should make room for?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Record Roundup: Spirits Of The Past

I'm laser-focused on the new and keeping up with artists who are active today, which is nearly a full-time job. But the riches of the past are undeniable, either in the form of deluxe reissues, records returning to print, or previously unissued music, which may be the most tantalizing of all. You'll find examples of each below, sometimes with an eye to "consumer advice," which is part of the picture whenever someone tries to make new money off of old music. 

Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda  - World Spirituality Classics, Vol. 1: The Ecstatic Music Of... The widow of the titanic sax player was on the wrong side of so many margins that it wouldn't surprise me if a common reaction to her name was either ignorance or outright hostility. In a way she could be seen as the Yoko Ono of jazz, a woman who entered the boy's club and pulled her husband's music in all sorts of weird directions. At least that the impression I got from the copies of Downbeat I found in my brother's room back in the 70's. I will forever resent those critics who so badly understood what Turiya was doing that it took until 2004 for me to get her classic album Journey To Satchidananda - and then I listened to it every day for six months straight. 

As unusual as that and the other jazz-harp-Indian-mystic albums (including an underrated collaboration with Carlos Santana) that followed were, what we have here is in an entirely different realm. Even if you didn't know that these pieces were from cassettes recorded during services at Turiya's ashram, I think the ritual power of this music would be immediately obvious. The effect is not unlike some of the source material for David Byrne & Brian Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - intimate, arresting, even eerie at times. Since Turiya had effectively turned her back on the business of music at the time she made these recordings, it's impossible to know what she would have made of them being released as a deluxe double album. We do know her children Michelle, Ravi, and Oran Coltrane, along with her nephew Steven Ellison (AKA Flying Lotus), were involved and so must assume that all due respect was paid. 

As for the sound world to which we are invited on these selected tracks, it contains a number of fascinating intersections. Only one piece, Er Ra, contains her signature harp, the rest are dominated by massive, swooping synths (I immediately thought Oberheim - and the comprehensive liner notes confirmed it) that seem to rocket in on a jet stream informed in part by 80's R&B and early Eurythmics. There are touches of sitar and live strings here and there, and tambourines, hand claps, and other percussion chattering hypnotically.  The chanting is also fairly constant, and there are sometimes solo singers - including Turiya herself - that  circle back to gospel, soul and disco in their passion and melismatic effects. 

Whether you put it to use in your own spiritual practice or just listen, this is an incredibly important release which closes the circle on the work of a musician who has only grown in importance. Kudos to Luaka Bop for putting it together. I look forward to volume two in this groundbreaking series. 

Radiohead - OKNOTOK 1997-2017 Leave it to Yorke, Greenwood & Co. to turn the unboxing video into a work of art. But then the super-deluxe version of this 20th anniversary reissue is an extraordinary thing. Besides the original remastered album on vinyl and a third record containing three unreleased songs (all good, especially the elegant and moody Man Of War) and many of the b-sides of the era, you get a facsimile of Thom Yorke's notebook, unseen artwork, and a cassette of demos. If you can afford it! Punters (and streamers) will likely get the two-CD version, which just has the album, the three new tracks, and the b-sides. All well and good, except there was already a deluxe reissue of OK Computer almost ten years ago. While it didn't have the fancy packaging or the three lost tracks, it did have two remixes (the Fila Brazillia version of Climbing Up The Walls is especially groovy), and a few BBC recordings and live tracks (Lucky, from Rome, is fantastic), all now lost to the dustbin of your local used music emporium. Maybe there are plans for comprehensive sets of live materials and remixes, but for now it is as it as always been: being a Radiohead completist takes work - and deep pockets. 

Helium - Ends With And Every so often over the last 20 years or so, I have found myself wondering "But what about Helium?" just because they seemed so forgotten. And I would flash back to the night at Knitting Factory when my wife and best friend tried to convince me I was wrong for being a fan - while Helium was playing. I felt so alone. But that's all different now that Matador has reissued most of the music released during their heyday along with a double-album compilation of rarities, all under the supervision of leader Mary Timony. While there are some legitimate complaints about omissions (Only the b-side of the debut single? Well, OK.), this is pure catnip. If you're unfamiliar, start with debut album The Dirt Of Luck. Otherwise, dive into Ends With And and wallow in the toothsome delights of damaged guitars and sweet vocals. Nobody did that kind of thing better. 

Various Artists - Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star When Chris Bell and Alex Chilton formed Big Star it was the coming together of two strands of musical DNA that had not yet generated fully viable life on their own. Chilton had been chewed up and spat out by the teen idol machine as the lead singer of The Box Tops and, as a previous collection of his work between bands revealed, he had yet to find himself musically in the aftermath. Bell was following a more conventional path, working his way through the Memphis rock scene as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, sideman, and engineer. 

This collection is the most comprehensive overview yet of Bell's apprenticeship and, while containing only six previously unreleased tracks, it clarifies all the strengths he (and drummer Jody Stevens, also included here) brought to the table when he and Chilton joined forces. These would include a well-developed sense of Beatle-esque melody, rippling and ripping lead guitar work, leanings toward late psychedelia and even prog, and a taste for hard rock grit. For the Big Star fan this is fascinating listening and a welcome dent in the "great man theory" Chilton's canonization has made endemic. That Bell held Chilton in very high regard, however, is made clear by the excellent liner notes, which include copious amounts of oral history. As Tom Eubanks, lead singer and main songwriter of Rock City, a band whose output takes up nearly half of Looking Forward, says: "One needs to consider that the major purpose of Rock City was for Christopher to develop recording engineering skills for the planned formation of...Big Star," when Chilton returned to Memphis in six months time. One listen to Big Star's first album is all you need to know it was time well spent. 

The whole package is expertly assembled, as one would expect from Omnivore, but it should be pointed out that with so much that was previously available, this is almost just a well-informed playlist. Four of the unreleased tracks are backing tracks or alternate backing tracks and neither of the new completed songs feature Bell's sweet, high tenor. But if you're like me and never bothered to get the Rock City album, which was first put out over a decade ago, or compilations like the Ardent Records Story, you'll want to grab this. 

All I Need Is You is the best non-Beatles Beatles song since Lies by The Knickerbockers and is worth the price of admission. Looking Forward is also a great look at Memphis' early 70s rock underground, so unexpected in a town known mainly for its soul music. I Am The Cosmos, a beautiful album Chris Bell left unfinished at the time his tragic death in 1979, is still the true revelation of his talents. If you don't have it, keep an eye out for a new version coming from Omnivore later this year. Based on this collection, Bell's masterpiece will sound better than ever. 

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band In which the most underrated overrated album of all time is subject to a very high-tech remix by Giles Martin, son of original producer George. His goal was to inform a stereo mix with some of the virtues of the original mono. Now, I must shamefacedly admit that I've never heard the mono version - I know, bizarre, right? But I have been working my through the mono vinyl reissues slowly and they are revelatory, so I get where Giles is coming from. I'm also intimately acquainted with every second of the original stereo LP, which my parents bought upon release and proceeded to wear out over the next few years. 

On every device I've used, the Giles effect is completely noticeable - and amazing. The bass has more heft, the guitars more sting, the drums more presence, and the vocals are warmer and better-integrated into the tracks. Then there are all the strings, horns, special effects, and sonic experiments, which are all more pronounced. Everything gels more than the 2008 digital stereo remaster, but you still might find yourself focusing on tiny details the first time around, like the little shuffle Ringo uses to transition into the chorus of With A Little Help From My Friends, or the subtle inflections of John's voice on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. At this point I find myself just flat-out enjoying the album more, even laughing out loud at the audacity of the "Bi-Lee-Shears" they sing to introduce Ringo's star turn. While it's still not my favorite Fabs album, I highly recommend you give this a listen, whichever side of the overrated/underrated spectrum you occupy. (P.S. Memo to Keith Richards: Sgt. Pepper's is not rubbish.)

There's also a generous helping of studio outtakes and demos, which will delight and amaze with a fly-on-the-wall look at some of their process. I'm saving up for the super-deluxe, which comes with a second disc of extras. Plus, you get new versions of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the colorful, emotionally-charged seeds of the whole Pepper project. The White Album turns 50 next year, and Abbey Road the year after that, so let's hope Giles & Co. are hard at work. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus 40 In which Ziggy Marley reveals he's no Giles Martin. Certainly this landmark album deserves as much commemoration as Sgt. Pepper's, but "restatement" disc at the center of this edition is, frankly, a mess. Bad enough that Ziggy blended his dad's vocals from outtakes with parts from other alternate takes of the songs, but he also presents them out of order. The whole experience is very unsatisfying; I would rather have had genuine outtakes and demos, even if raw - something that would let us in on the process Marley and the band went through while creating the album. Fortunately, the first disc is an untouched version of the original, the same excellent remaster as the Deluxe Edition released in 2001. Disc three is a complete concert from the Rainbow in 1977, the same show which was teased in a few tracks on that earlier reissue. It's wonderful, with beautiful sound and locked-in performances, a public service on its own terms. Just keep Ziggy away from Survival. 

Linval Thompson - Rocking Vibration & Love Is The Question No bells and whistles here - just a twofer of prime Linval Thompson (both from 1978) which means roots reggae at its best, and in stunning sound. The first of the two is especially good: Thompson produced himself, hired Sly & Robbie to play the riddims, and wisely brought in King Tubby to mix. It's a special record and the second is nearly as good. 

Piri - Vocês Querem Mate? This is another brilliant early-70's Brazilian reissue from Far Out Recordings, a fine follow-up to last year's Obnoxius by Jose Mauro. Samba-Bossa-Topicalia bliss may be the most blissful bliss of all!

Tenorio Jr. - Embalo More Brazilian beauty, from 1964 this time, and on the jazz tip. Tenorio's lighter than air sparkle on piano is the real draw, but there's a large helping of trombone, which always seems to have one eyebrow raised as it oozes out a solo. This is Tenorio's only album as a leader but it made his reputation. He had a nice career going as a sideman until 1976, when he went out for a pack of cigarettes while on tour in Argentina and was never seen again. Whether he became a desaparecido or met with some other mishap, his legacy is secure thanks to Embalo. 

David Bowie - Cracked Actor: Live Los Angeles '74 Even though I have reveled for years in a bootleg of this show from late in the Diamond Dogs tour, this official release is a must. It was mixed by none other than Tony Visconti himself, which means the widescreen grandeur of Bowie's ensemble is finally revealed. With irrepressible sax-man David Sanborn duking it out with guitar murderer Earl Slick, piano wizard Mike Garson creating his own universe, and no less than seven background vocalists (including Luther Vandross) this was the epic approach Bowie's music required at the time. I'm such a fan that I even love David Live, in all it's spiritually emaciated, overdubbed ignominy, but there's no doubt this was the better concert - and now it's in the canon. Hey, Bowie people, how about putting out Alan Yentob's documentary of the same name, filmed around the same time? 

There's more new old stuff to explore in this playlist. What have I missed?

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Best Of 2017 (So Far)

While I call these types of posts "Best Of," you should always understand that "best" is a designation driven by my personal engagement with the records at hand. So, in actuality, these are my favorite records of the year (so far), the ones I have turned to repeatedly to limn hard days with light, amplify joyous times, to make me think and feel in new ways and old. That said, I do think there are qualities of these records that are objectively "great," so if there are any you haven't heard yet, I hope you'll give them a try.

It's too early to put things in numerical order, so I have arranged this in an approximation of how many times I've listened to each one.

Father John Misty - Pure Comedy I already covered some of my thoughts about this extraordinary work here, but I also want to point out despite tweaking himself as "the oldest living man in folk-rock," Josh Tillman is also one of the hardest working. While maintaining a tireless round of concert dates, interviews, TV appearances, etc., he has never stopped pushing himself artistically since dropping Fear Fun onto an unsuspecting universe five years ago. So, Pure Comedy finds him and his artistic foil, production savant Jonathan Wilson, expanding the canvas of sound with lusher arrangements and longer structures while still maintaining what might be called, sonically speaking, "brand integrity." This was precisely what was needed to support FJM's view of humanity from a thousand feet up, peering at us through polluted clouds with fear, anger, hope, and humor. And he has never sung better, his voice even more honeyed than it was on his last album. There were times in the performance and promotion cycle for his first two albums where I detected a hint of weariness with the FJM persona, but Pure Comedy proves there is no limit to the creativity and passion Tillman unleashed with its creation.

Nordic Affect - Raindamage THE Icelandic contemporary chamber music album - at least until their next one. The title track was composed by Valgeir Siguròsson, who released an album of his compositions called DISSONANCE, which is well worth checking out, as is Recurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. On the heels of 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly and 2016's Untitled Unmastered, the Compton rapper finds new ways to devastate, provoke, and inspire. I attempted to plumb some of the depths of this multilayered creation here. It's very tough to imagine a better hip hop album coming out this year.

The Courtneys - II Guitars, bass, drums, and vocals configured into such glorious simplicity it becomes artful minimalism. Watch the speed limit when listening in your car.

Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up I will have more to say about this album at another time, but for now I will say that it more than lives up to the weight of my expectations. Robin Pecknold's songwriting more complex and literary than ever and the arrangements of the suite-like songs are astonishingly beautiful. There's also less reliance on five-part harmonies, with Pecknold letting it rip in his glorious tenor, expressing both strength and vulnerability with greater directness than on previous works. I also had the privilege of seeing them perform many of these songs in the intimate confines of the legendary Electric Lady studios for a show to be broadcast by WFUV and I can report that Pecknold and Co. have complete command of these proggy folk epics. I'm seeing them again on August 1st in Prospect Park. Tickets may still be available for the August 2nd show, so I recommend you get in on it - or find a date when they're in your town.

Goldfrapp - Silver Eye After some time in the wilderness, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory are back at their best and it's oh so addictive.

Noveller - A Pink Sunset For No One Sarah Lipstate creates paintings in sound with her guitar, loop pedals, and a laptop - and they're gorgeous and emotionally resonant. So many subway rides were elevated with this, her ninth (or 11th? I've seen both figures) album, which shows off her gift for structure, possibly related to her work in film. I find myself thinking more about individual songs on Pink Sunset, rather than just letting the album go by in a luscious blur as I did with her last album, Fantastic Planet. Catch her live, if you can - watching her put everything together is a wonder.

Boogarins - Desvio Onírico (Live 2016) and Lá Vem a Morte The Brazilian band is progressing through their career like a rocket, shedding parts and picking up all sorts of interesting space debris on the way. Exhibit A is the live album that ruled my ski season, lending even more adventure to the slopes. Exhibit B is their new studio concoction, which is easily their most sophisticated recording to date. There is a collage-like feel to some of the songs, which was presaged by last year's single (included here), Elogio à Instituição do CinismoPOLUÇÃO NOTURNA, for example, starts with a buzz and some bright guitar, which resolves into a sweet song with all kinds of bleeps and glitches accumulating around the guitar, which finally just stops, while the sounds continue and blend into the sketchy Lá Vem a Morte pt. 2, which includes fragments of the song. I'm eager to see how these new developments translate into their live sound and hope to make it to their free concert on July 8th, part of the Summer Thunder series.

Sampha - Process Composer, producer, singer, musician - Sampha Sisay can do it all. He's also worked with essentially every next-level hip hop and r&b artist in all those capacities, including Kanye West, Solange, Frank Ocean, and FKA Twigs - and those are just the ones I like. Process is his first full-length and reveals an old soul with all the old-fashioned strengths in his songwriting, piano playing, and deeply felt singing. His production talents serve each song perfectly, whether it's the spare (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano or the monster groove of Blood On Me - check out how the background vocals make the song levitate. I'm sure Process will only make demand for Sampha's assistance greater, but I hope we don't have to wait long for more of his own very personal music.

Nev Cottee - Broken Flowers I must have listened to this Manchester-based singer some time in the past, as he showed up in my Release Radar on Spotify - but I don't remember being blown away the way I am by this new album. The songs seem dipped in a Daniel Lanoisian (Lanois-esque?) stardust and many have draggy tempos that stretch the notion of a pulse to the breaking point. Cottee's voice can seem to dip into a tectonic frequency, but it's your soul that moves, not the earth. There's heartbreak, seething anger, hard-won wisdom and world-weariness, all leavened by a sense of humor and melodic invention. The instrumentation can be skeletal, with Plastic Ono Band drums and one-note keyboard lines, but there's also delicious moments like the dueling guitar and strings on Be On Your Way or the tremelo bar workout on Nobody's Fool, which is part Duane Eddy and part Ennio Morricone. The centerpiece of the album is epic track Tired of Love, which spins off into the stratosphere over eight glorious minutes of harpsichord arpeggios, guitar twangs, and strings.

Novella - Change Of State This British band keeps getting better at their sleek psych, using Krautrock rhythms to drive their songs straight to your cortex.

Prodigy - Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation) This album, now the last from the legendary Mobb Deep rapper, who died in June, has been a slow burn for me, but the overall mood of dark elegance eventually took hold. No other genre moves as fast as hip hop, which means that late-career albums like this have a limited impact on the wider culture. Maybe that's why some of Prodigy's message seems to be directed at himself, like this opening verse from Tyranny: "My confidence is up, I believe with all my soul/I can do anything that I put my heart into/I spend all my time focused in the lab/coming up with these songs/mastering my craft." But the chorus takes a political turn: "Race don't matter/Your faith don't matter/The enemy is government tyranny/All that other shit don't matter." This confirmed by the sampled voice at the end: "This time, vote like your life depended on it." The album seems to see-saw between public and personal concerns, which may be part of the reason behind the title, which refers to the idea that opposing ideas can only be resolved by acknowledging their common strengths in a synthesis. There's a mournful quality, even when the lyrics get tough. Was Prodigy worried about his own future, or that of his people, or our country? The likely answer is all three, and we might have learned more with the next two albums in a planned trilogy. While Hegelian Dialectic doesn't hit as many highs as Albert Einstein, it is a fitting capstone to the career of one of the greatest ever to rock the mic.

Elsa Hewitt - Cameras From Mars By seasoning her compulsively listenable bedroom electro-pop with hints of dub and modern R&B, Hewitt enriches the sound immeasurably. But it's still an intimate, sometimes delicate, concoction of spare beats, dusky melodies and soulful singing. Cameras From Mars is not the full story, however, as the ambitious Hewitt has just announced the next album, Dum Spiro Spero, second in a projected 2017 trilogy. She promises everything will make more sense when all three albums are out, but nothing feels unfinished on this delightful debut.

Spoon - Hot Thoughts For sheer production creativity alone, this album would be notable for the way it fully modernizes rock by bringing in elements of electronic music and hip hop. The core of the sound is, as ever, Britt Daniel's gritty, flexible voice, and his slashing guitar, which, along with Jim Eno's drums, makes Spoon stay Spoon while moving further outward.

Jonwayne - Rap Album Two The career of this California-based rapper and producer has had more ups and downs than I could have expected when I reviewed his first album in Mass Appeal, including a health scare that had us all worried. But he clawed his way back, fighting his own demons ("I spent the last two years fucking up big dreams," he admits in These Words Are Everything), and arriving at a richer place musically and lyrically. That struggle is the subject of some of the songs, the perspective of deeply intelligent mind subject to chronic loneliness and gifted with the curse of wisdom beyond his years. He also wrestles with the duality of being a lover of hip hop but not wanting to give in to the stereotypic subject matter expected in the genre. This is sarcastically explored in The Single, in which he tries and fails three times to record a tough talking rhyme in the hope of getting airplay. Then there are the demands of the success he has had, detailed LIVE From The Fuck You, which recreates that awkward moment when someone insults you ("But, um, she says you rap and I'm not really seeing it dog,") and then wants you to perform for their girlfriend ("I mean it's her birthday, dog. I'm just saying"). Nick Colletti as the "fan" makes this scene all too real. But, in the end, it's Jonwayne's sheer creativity and his big heart that helped him prevail, and I'm glad he's back. Since his "words are everything/maybe they're my only thing," I'll let him play this out with a clever verse from Paper: "When I die, I wanna grow into a tree/I want 'em to bury me/Mixed in with soil and leaves/And when I'm stretched 'cross the land/And your son cuts me down/I wanna be the book your grandchildren read aloud/With the tape on my spine/I'm still proud/I want 'em to hand me down/And give me to GoodwillAnd price me for a dollar/Still get shoplifted, hell/Torn open just to give a man shelter."

Nadia Reid - Preservation Coming out of New Zealand, Nadia Reid has a rich contralto and an expert line in melancholy. The sturdy, moving songs are full of folk-rock shimmer, whether from finger-picked acoustics or strummed electrics. While the songs can seem pretty and even decorous, the smart lyrics are full of muscular imagery and touches of darkness. Standout track Richard, for example, begins: "Richard liked the sound of his own voice/By the kitchen in the mirror/It extracted all of our teeth/Filled the sink with blood/And I am on the cross of forgiveness/He wanted it final, finally." If I were going to pick the single, however, it would be the propulsive The Way It Goes, with its mysterious melody and lonely lyrics, a tale told from a car window. This is Reid's second album and has the confidence of an artist working exactly where she wants to be - meet her there.

Michael Chapman - 50 A contemporary of Bob Dylan's, Chapman is stubbornly remains the greatest living unknown legend. This album is a beautiful reminder of all he has accomplished in a 50-year career.

Heliocentrics - A World of Masks While their music never lacks integrity, I haven't been grabbed by anything by this jazz-funk-world collective since 2009's brilliant collaboration with Ethiopian genius Mulatu Astatke - until now. Maybe the addition of shamanic Slovakian singer Barbora Patkova ramped up their intensity, giving the music more of a sense of purpose. The Heliocentrics are big band, and Patkova has a big voice, almost operatic, and when she turns it all the way on and the musicians rise to meet her it's a thrilling experience. This is turning into a banner year for Heliocentrics fans, as they also put out the sly, Curtis Mayfield-influenced soundtrack to The Sunshine Makers, a documentary about LSD. Expand your mind.

American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Thrive on Routine This excellent album features a varied set of new chamber music by Caleb Burhans, Catherine Shaw, and Timo Andres - all of whom are overshadowed by John Luther Adams. The sparkling mystery of In A Treeless Place Only Snow, which closes the collection, stops me in my tracks every single time. I may be the only one who feels this way, however, so I encourage you to listen to all of the beautiful sounds herein. The performances are all first rate, and the production is at the high standards established by Sono Luminus.

Mastodon - Emperor of Sand Three years after the disappointment of Once More 'Round the Sun, the progressive metal titans nearly return to form. Similar to albums like Leviathan and Crack The Skye, there is a loose concept tying the songs together (about a desert wanderer), but they resonate because they reflect real - and often painful - experiences. Every song is a triumph against some kind of adversity, with guitars as the main weapons of mass destruction, leading to more spine-tingling musical moments than I can describe here. Start with Show Yourself, which is their version of a pop song, or Andromeda, which aims for the stars. If you're feeling brave, go all in with the eight-minute epic, Jaguar God. Like a track from Metallica's Master of Puppets, it starts with a skein of delicate acoustic guitars and builds to a sandstorm, ending the album at peak intensity.

This playlist (or one on YouTube) features one song from each artist - find what you like and then go to the album for more listening pleasure.

This list is just a fraction of everything I've been tracking since January 1. Dig deep and keep in the loop by following the playlists of your choice from the list below.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dylan-Lamar-Misty: An American Trilogy

There's already been enough ink spilled - both pro and con - about the three albums discussed below for even a casual observer to recognize that they are among the most notable of the year. So, rather than review them all in a conventional fashion, I thought it might be more interesting to go a bit more meta in my analysis. 

PAST: Bob Dylan - Triplicate When last we met Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize-winning songwriter, he was inhabiting the role of the night watchman on the Titanic and singing bloody tales on the brave and beautiful Tempest, his last album of originals. In the five years since, he has embarked on a quixotic and intermittently rewarding journey through the heart of Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. When Shadows In The Night, the first of these albums, came out in 2013, Dylan gave interviews where he talked about how these were "uncover" versions, which he hoped would reveal the bones of these great songs free of obfuscating ornamentation. Even so, part of me wondered if "Dylan sings Sinatra" was to the side of his overall project, a diversion. 

But I also remembered Dylan writing in Chronicles: Volume One about how he had studied Brecht-Weill's Pirate Jenny, breaking it down and examining its mechanics in great detail as a way to progress in his own songwriting. So maybe Shadows and its follow up, Fallen Angels, were part of the same process, like when he presaged the purple patch that started with Time Out Of Mind with two albums of folk and blues covers (both remarkable albums, and ripe for rediscovery). This seemed to jibe with rumors I heard of new songs being recorded, including a duet with Mavis Staples they put together when they were on the road together

But then Triplicate dropped, 30 new cover songs, arranged in thematic groups only Dylan really understood. Like the other albums, it is a beautifully recorded and performed mixed bag, with the uptempo, horn-driven tunes the most effective to these ears. The packaging of the deluxe edition resembles the "record albums" I found in my grandmother's collection (and that Dylan likely grew up with), making an even more explicit nod to the past. 

Then it hit me: his Bobness isn't studying up for new songs (although those may be coming), he is immersing himself in yesteryear. Why? Because he saw it all coming. When Tempest came out, some people were baffled by the sanguinary escapades described in many of the songs, whether in the exploits of the Early Roman Kings, the residents of Scarlet Town, or the "brother killing brother" on the Titanic in the title track. What was all that bloodletting about? It only took five years for the other shoe to drop: "American carnage." Remember, Dylan was on the fiery front lines of the Civil Rights movement, he saw hatred directed at him - probably even getting called a "nigger lover" - he knew the reaction to the Obama presidency was going to be harsh. He tried to tell us on Tempest: there will be blood. This is America, born in British blood, baptized in Southern blood, confirmed in black blood...there gets to be a need for another vein to open. 

After I had lived with Triplicate for a week or so, all this hit me like a ton of bricks: Get. The. Message. I mean, could it get any more obvious? He tried to warn us, and now that his prediction is splashed across the headlines and our Twitter feeds - with the metaphorical blood of the "forgotten Americans" being drained by White House policies on a daily basis, and the literal blood of black men on the streets - he's out. And I'll be goddamned if he hasn't earned every right to be another septuagenarian finding comfort in the songs of old. But he's not time traveling because he wants to return to the past, rather he perhaps seeks to reintroduce us to the humane values from which Tin Pan Alley often took its lifeblood. The liner notes by Tom Piazza touch on this: "The angle of light is mostly autumnal; the songs address longing for something gone, or just out of reach, a past that can't be retrieved."

As Dylan sings in Why Was I Born, the Jerome Kern song that concludes Triplicate:

Why was I born
Why am I livin'
What do I get
What am I givin'

That these questions still matter to Dylan, and I don't think he does anything lightly, is deeply moving. Do they matter to you?

PRESENT: Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. "What happens on earth, stays on earth," is one refrain that pops up repeatedly on the follow-up to the staggering triumph of To Pimp A Butterfly. That's a literally grounded statement, as is the moment in BLOOD,  the introductory skit, when Lamar gets shot by a blind woman who likely represents American justice, just America, or both. The album that follows finds Lamar wrestling with our present moment in kaleidoscopic detail, constantly questioning how he and we got HERE and wondering what the next step is. 

While each song stands on its own, there is also a loose concept that is made clearer by the end when the album swallows its own tail with what may be the whole album run backwards at increasing speed, ending the album where it began: "So, I was taking a walk one day..." There are also a number of theories about listening to DAMN. in reverse order, traveling from Kendrick's origins in DUCKWORTH., the last song, to his death in BLOOD. Like the continuing "conversation" around police shootings and general issues of imbalance of power, the album is a circular argument.

Lamar's inability to reconcile his own individual talent and achievement with the perpetual underdog status of his race is not a failure but an acknowledgment of a recalcitrant issue that may be the central obstacle to this country living up to its potential. Naming the problem, so they say, is always the first step toward solving it and maybe "new Kung Fu Kenny" (a new nickname for Lamar, based on a Don Cheadle character, that appears several times) will be the one to break us out of the patterns that are holding back progress. 

But FEAR. is the landmark track on the album, its middle section describing in chilling detail over a dozen ways he could have died as a teenager in Compton, a personal truth for Lamar that is far too easy to tie into headlines from across the country. Can we get past this moment, shake loose of the prejudice and hatred, without blowing everything up along the way? 

FUTURE: Father John Misty - Pure Comedy Although it's couched in an enhanced and very modern take on Laurel Canyon almost-soft-rock, Pure Comedy may be the most futuristic album of the year so far. In song after song, in the grand tradition of speculative fiction, FJM takes human foibles to their natural conclusion, imagining a world where global warming has destroyed civilization, virtual reality has sapped the will to live, or the political divide has made it almost impossible to share the planet. 

One example is Things It Would Have Been Good To Know before The Revolution, which comes off as a sequel to the Talking Heads' Life During Wartime. After the high-tension thrills David Byrne so vividly describes, what comes next? Society rebuilt on its ashes, where we are no longer at the top of the food chain and the idea of "eating on the run" takes on new meaning. Twenty Years From Now is also an explicit peek into a crystal ball, and only slightly clouded by jaundice. 

Even in the most personal song on the record, the epic Leaving L.A., FJM can't help envision Los Angeles after "the big one," or relate how he's "beginning to begin to see the end," of his own career, with the aura of impending doom goosed by Gavin Bryars' spine-tingling string arrangement. The involvement of this 80-year-old legend of 20th century classical music, best known for his piece memorializing the sinking of the Titanic, was a catalyst to connecting Pure Comedy to Dylan's Tempest. Also, the sheer volume of words FJM spills on some of these essays in song is probably only equaled by the Bard of Hibbing himself - or a great rapper like Kendrick Lamar. 

While his need to convey so many ideas occasionally finds FJM shoehorning words into the bar line of a song, stretching a rhyme scheme to the breaking point, or reaching for an easy pun, these shortcomings are more than balanced out by quotable lines in every track. One great example is on When The God Of Love Returns There Will Be Hell To Pay, when he goes back to the Bible to get old-school apocalyptic and turns one of the Four Horsemen's steeds into a mordant observer of current affairs: "And the pale horse looks a little sick/Says, "Jesus, you didn't leave a whole lot for me/If this isn't hell already then tell me what the hell is?"

Despite the bleak, sarcastic, even bitter observations of Pure Comedy, FJM's viewpoint isn't completely fatalistic. His optimism can be located somewhere between the twin poles of The Beatles'  "Love is all you need," and Randy Newman's Political Science, offering a few variations on the theme of "each other's all we got," first stating it the title track, or "It's a miracle to be alive," which comes in the last song. 

Lamar's view is also not universally dark. He finds time to tweak other rappers, ("sit down, be humble"), and indulge in some LUST., in a Princely falsetto yet, and even LOVE. in the pretty, Frank Ocean-influenced collaboration with R&B up-and-comer Zacari. Even if the sentiments in these two songs are complex and nuanced, the lush sonic backdrops are a respite in their own right. In the end, the hope in DAMN. stems from the sheer humanity baked into every track, which is impossible to imagine even the most stone-cold racist ignoring. "Ain't nobody praying for me," Lamar claims several times, but I would like to think he's wrong. Our future may depend on it.

As for Dylan, wandering the labyrinth of the past, I found the glow at the end of the tunnel to reside in second of two photographs by John Shearer included in the collection. The first is a Hollywood-style portrait that, even with the heavy use of chiaroscuro, can't help but reveal the thousand shocks that Dylan's face has been heir to after 75 years of living. But the second shows him dressed with casual swagger and leaning against a vintage convertible, which contains a gorgeous, provocatively dressed young woman. You could read many meanings into this picture, even something unsavory. She's young enough to be his daughter, for one thing - maybe she is his daughter, we have no idea. But you could also see it as a picture of a guy who still has plenty to live for. 

As long as the Never Ending Tour continues and our most recognized prophet is still on the road looking for another joint, I think we're going to be OK.

P.S. Keep an eye out for Best of 2017 (So Far) to see where these albums fall - or don't - on my list of favorites.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Levitating With Car Seat Headrest

Although Teens Of Denial, Car Seat Headrest's triumphant 2016 album, is laced with keyboards and the surprising blast of a horn section, leader Will Toledo definitely subscribes to Lou Reed's dictum: "You can't beat two guitars, bass, and drums." And, except for occasional hypnotic loops, that's what he delivered in stunning style to a packed house at Webster Hall last Friday night (and into Saturday morning - it was part of the Governor's Ball After Dark series). 

For a bit of verité reaction, here's the hyped review I dashed off on Bandsintown after the concert:

"Fantastic show! The band's connection to the audience was something to behold. Webster Hall practically levitated with the energy. Will Toledo is a true master of song, singing, guitar, and the stage - and his band was more than up to the task of supporting him. Practically every song was a highlight but Unforgiving Girl and Fill In The Blank were extra special. Also notable was the epic ballad-like approach to Bowie's Teenage Wildlife. I would see them again in a heartbeat!"

I also posted this video, just a hint of the energy in the room, which had the ballroom's sprung floor bouncing:

One thing Father Lou did not mention in his recipe for success was lyrics, which were obviously a huge aspect of his art. So it was for Buddy Holly, the original avatar of "two guitars, bass, and drums," and so it is for Toledo. He's brilliant at turning self-doubt and bad behavior into empathetic anthems ("Drugs are better, drugs are better with friends are better, friends are better, friends are better with drugs are better..." or "We are not a proud race, it's not a race at all, We're just trying, I'm only trying to get home: Drunk Drivers!" or "I didn't want you to hear that shake in my voice/my pain is my own.") and the audience knew every word. The last time I heard this much audience participation was at the Kanye West show and in both cases it was an amazing thing to experience. This is one reason we go to concerts in the first place, for the thrill of being among the subset of "our people" that includes fans of the act on stage.

Nap Eyes, the opening band, commanded only a sub-subset of the people in the room, the chatter sometimes threatening to drown out the more delicate moments. But their quietly determined indie - somewhere between Mutual Benefit and Velvet Underground 3rd - won them some new fans, who crowded around them at the merch table after the show. While it wasn't the ideal setting, I was glad for the chance to see them, having really enjoyed their last album Thought Rock Fish Scale, which includes the modern classic, Stargazer

I've been trying to get to a CSH show for about two years, ever since Toledo poked his head above the Bandcamp morass, but they always sold out in minutes. Now I know why - and thank goodness for the credit card pre-sale! I won't belabor the point further: See this band

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)
Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.
The Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1
Best Of 2016: The Top 20

Monday, May 29, 2017

Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)

I made a tiny zine about long songs - let me know if you want a copy!
So far, 2017 is proving to be a good year for what we still call rock music. Part of the vitality of the form can be felt in two emerging trends I have observed starting earlier this year.

1. Live Albums: Rock has always thrived on stage and one of its central challenges has been capturing that lightning in the studio. A good live album bypasses that issue and gives us the raw, uncut power we seek (although sometimes with a little tweaking). As I noted in my review of the excellent and exploratory live album by Brazilian psych-rockers Boogarins, official concert releases haven't been so common lately. But even before that album came out, Sleater Kinney put out the explosive Live In Paris, which must have been manna for fans, as was Carrie & Lowell Live by Sufjan Stevens. Hiss Golden Messenger also put out a beautiful document of an early concert from their current tour. Get it for free - and if it doesn't compel you to by a ticket next time M.C. Taylor comes to town, I don't know what will. Perhaps this trend is a reaction to the bolted together industrial strength shiny objects that dominate the top 40. Either way, it's a heartening development and I think there will be more. 

2. Epic Tracks: Long songs by rock bands is another trend that has ebbed and flowed ever since Dylan waxed Like A Rolling Stone and The Doors ended their debut with The End. While they've never gone away entirely, this was the first year that I've felt moved to start gathering songs longer than seven minutes in a Spotify playlist imaginatively called Epic Tracks 2017. Maybe it's the Blackstar effect, as the title track from Bowie's final album was a 10-minute masterpiece, or it could be inspiration from Car Seat Headrest, who turned heads in 2016 with The Ballad of Costa Concordia, which powered on for 11 minutes and change. 

When it came to starting up the playlist, more than one song from Father John Misty's astonishing Pure Comedy could have made the cut. Tough choice, but I picked the incantatory expanse of Leaving L.A., which devastates in one minute and causes a snarky chuckle in the next, to finish the mix. His old colleagues Fleet Foxes are also included, represented by First Of May/Ôdaigahara, the suite-like first single from their upcoming album

A less expected occupant is my cousin, Billy Joseph, with the title track to his lushly produced album Ride On The Mystery, which finds him pushing his voice into new places, before letting guitars and synths take over. I was also surprised - and most pleasantly - to hear Jay Som stretch out on For Light, the last song of Everybody Works, her striking collection of sophisticated indie - all recorded in her bedroom. She really can do it all. 

While lengthy songs are common in metal, Mastodon's latest, Emperor of Sand, is such a killer return to form that I dropped Jaguar God into the list. The Feelies have also been known to play long and, as it happens, my favorite song from their lethargic new album is In Between (Reprise), a blistering 11 minute rocker. LCD Soundsystem is another sacred cow that disappoints as often as it delights, but fortunately their new single is in the latter category and one song, Call the Police, is a natural fit for the playlist at just over seven minutes. 

Keep me in the loop on anything I've missed - I'm hoping the Epic Tracks 2017 playlist itself goes to epic length by the end of the year!

In addition to the albums mentioned above, here are three other rock albums that I've been returning to often.

The Courtneys - II This is a familiar sound: driving rhythms, guitars that chime, grind, and mesh, taut bass lines, edgy-sweet female vocals, a whiff of the 90's. Familiar enough, in fact, that I almost turned away. But then the hooks got their hooks into me, the band's conviction and craftsmanship became more convincing, and the lyrics revealed a sly commentary on the nostalgia the music seemed to represent: "You'll never get old and you'll never die/It just makes me want to cry." It's an addictive, joyful collection that improves on their debut in every way. No sophomore slump here! Start with Silver Velvet or Lost Boys (yes, an homage to the Kiefer Sutherland classic) to see if your boat gets afloat. The Vancouver-based band is on an extensive world tour (sometimes as an opening act), which will be returning stateside in September. I wish I could see them at the High Watt in Nashville, but I will gladly settle for Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn on October 16th. 

Novella - Change Of State This is also a second album, although the Londoners have been honing their sound since 2010. All that hard work paid off in their distinctive debut, Land, which came out in 2015. So Novella's progress is more incremental than The Courtney's, but it shows in the greater focus they bring to their crystal-clear psych-rock, which starts with flowing melodies and marries shimmering guitars to a hypnotic beat that casts back to Klaus Dinger's motorik drumming in Krautrock pioneers Neu. First-timers should dial up the title track or A Thousand Feet, with its haunting refrain of "But there's nothing there," and a spacious arrangement that probably gives plenty of opportunities to stretch out in concert. Now if they would just play NYC...or at least make a live album.

Spoon - Hot Thoughts By now an American institution, Spoon returned after three years with yet another terrific album, their ninth in a 20 year career. The production shows even more attention to detail than their last, They Want My Soul, which is saying a lot. Their ongoing fascination with techniques borrowed from hip hop and R&B continues to inject sonic excitement into the songs, which are already little wonders of jagged chord changes and jarring emotions. Dave Fridmann (known for his work with the Flaming Lips) is once again their able co-conspirator in the production chair, and I also note that main songwriter Britt Daniel is using co-writers outside of the band, which is unusual. I'm not sure if that is the source of the more telegraphic, minimalist style of some of the lyrics, or some other aspect of the songs.

Another difference is that the core of the album was recorded as a quartet, without multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey, who had been a member since 2004. This seems to expose the other players' contributions - in a good way, with Rob Pope shining especially bright on bass and adding a post-punk edge to keep things from getting too polished. Jim Eno is forever superb on the drums and newest member Alex Fischel continues to deploy intriguing keyboard textures while also being Daniel's sparring partner on guitar. These changes in personnel and process may be what it takes to keep things fresh this far into their career. While they have sometimes been accused of being formulaic, I can safely say that nothing else they've put out sounds like the nearly ambient Pink Up, which could almost be from side two of Bowie's Low, or Us, a melancholy instrumental laced with spacey sax (by Ted Taforo) that transports me to the futuristic L.A. of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It's an adventurous ending and one that points in new directions. Like rock music itself, Spoon continues to be surprisingly durable and rewarding - long may they reign.

P.S. If the music described herein is in your sweet spot, follow my Rock, Folk, Etc. playlist on Spotify to hear more and keep up with new releases.

You may also enjoy:
Boogarins Live: Parallel Play
Long Time Coming
Bulletproof Spoon
Live Review: Play Misty For Me

Epic Tracks 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA

Pianist & composer David Tudor on the program cover
"Both those who love 4'33"and those who hate it probably agree there's something provocative about it," composer David Lang (co-founder of Bang On A Can) told the audience at MoMA, referring to John Cage's most notorious piece. He's certainly right, and as I don't mind being provoked by art, I am firmly in the "love" camp. Another point he made was that Cage created the piece for avant-garde piano virtuoso David Tudor, which gave the unheard music far greater potential than if just anyone had sat down at the Steinway for four minutes and change. This was the perfect introduction to the performance by another virtuoso, violinist Todd Reynolds, which was part of a two night series focusing on music related to the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the museum. 

Reynolds did a remarkable job, striking a different pose for each of the work's three movements, dignified at all times but not without a puckish wit. I was put in mind of how someone like David Bowie could create unheard music in a still picture, like the unusual Hollywood-style portrait he had made for the Sound + Vision retrospective in the early 90's. It was not only a new look for Bowie, but it also seemed to refer to songs yet unwritten. 
Todd Reynolds, surrounded by the "silence" of 4'33"
Of course Cage, with his acknowledgement of the role of chance in his compositions, meant for us to pay attention to the sounds we do hear during 4'33", as no space is perfectly silent. In Titus Theater 1, two stories below West 53rd Street, there was plenty of listening to do. The periodic rumble of the subway was a lead "instrument," underpinned by the buzz of some electronics or lighting behind and to my left. There was a brief chorus of voices outside one of the fire exits, and the rhythm of my heart, which sped up for some reason during the first movement. It's not always easy to be in the moment, I guess. 

One brilliant way Cage dealt with that anxiety was to make it perfectly clear how long the piece will be. It went by surprisingly quickly, an appropriate appetizer for what was to follow. First up was After David Tudor (Homage To Fluorescent Sound), a tribute by Lang and Jody Elff to Tudor's composition for fluorescent lights, which can never be performed again. As Lang explained, not only is there no audio, video, or score, fluorescent lights have seen some improvements since 1964 and no longer make the humming and clicking sounds Tudor was amplifying. 

What they came up with was an assortment of fluorescent light fixtures, artfully arranged on the stage, and activated by Lang and Elff from a central console. Buzzing sounds of slightly different timbres began and ended, lights went on and off, my retinas got a workout. Sonically it had a slightly retro feel, which was appropriate, although I may have been the only one going all the way back to Franz Waxman's 1935 score for The Bride of Frankenstein, which featured some interesting "electricity" effects. It was a little unclear whether Lang and Elff were improvising or following some kind of plan, but there was a sense of build-up and finale as the piece came to a close. All told, it was a fun and affectionate acknowledgment of Tudor's pioneering work. 

Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis (1961), which "translates star charts into musical instructions," was up next and began without pause. Members of The New School's Ensemble 4'33", making their performing debut under Reynolds' direction, were arrayed around the perimeter of the room, giving us an immersive experience. The music, as fragmented as a pulverized mosaic, was made all the more satisfying for being the most melodic thing we had heard all night, even if the lights continued to buzz throughout.

The human ear seeks to organize sound, first by assigning a direction and source (bassoon at 3:00!), and then structure. There was none of the latter that I could discern until I realized that the atomization is the structure and relaxed into the randomness. Taken that way, Cage's conception is flawless and the performance could not have been better. The subtlety of some of the sounds, whether from electric guitar, percussion, cello or trumpet, was astonishing and quietly moving as the players coaxed it from their instruments. There is a great deal of flexibility in how this work is performed, and some recordings (James Levine, I'm looking at you) seem to conventionalize the music. I think I prefer Ensemble 4'33"'s approach, which seems somehow truer to Cage. I'm also sure I would hear more in a repeat performance, but I don't think it's in the stars.

You can watch the first night of the series, featuring music of Morton Feldman, Bryce Dessner, and others, here. The Rauschenberg show continues through September 17, 2017. 

You may also enjoy: 
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed
Pianos In Context
Bang-Up World Premieres