Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ten Lost MJ Gems



Ten Lost MJ Gems

In the wake of Michael Jackson's death I spent weeks listening to every song I could find in an attempt to make the ultimate mix. I knew I wanted it to be no longer than two CD's. I also worked to listen to everything with an open mind and not dismiss anything out of hand. He deserved that much for all the joy he had brought into my life.

In the end I ended up with a fantastic collection that we listened to addictively for months. I burned a copy for one friend who listened to it so much in her car I had to burn it again about a year later.

But I still had that playlist of "MJ Rejects" on my iPod. Some songs had been left off to avoid redundancy, like demos of hits or too many songs from one album. Others just seemed bad, too sappy or half-baked. But time can change how we feel about things so revisited the rejects today, on his 57th birthday to see if any of these songs struck me differently.

All Night Dancing - Destiny is actually a very consistent album and it was hard to leave any songs out of the playlist. This track is pure energy and the album seemed to hint at a bright future for The Jacksons as a group.

Scared Of The Moon - This demo could be a ballad from a high-budget Disney film. He sings with such purity - and none of the tics associated with his later work - that it's impossible not to sit in awe.

Monkey Business - Sly and sexy, this shouldn't have been left off Dangerous. I think the horn players (or it might be a synth) are having as much fun as MJ - - too much monkey business, indeed.

Stranger In Moscow - MJ's intimate delivery on this sleek bit of R&B balladry could warm up winter in Russia - or anywhere.

Burn This Disco Out - There's not really a bad track on Off The Wall and this jam features pretty much everything that makes MJ great. He constructed his songs like a choreographer which makes them so much fun to dance to.

Unbreakable - MJ seemed to have an uncomfortable relationship with hip-hop and I'm not sure he entirely understood it. This track featured the Notorious B.I.G., who is more up to the challenge than some of the rappers MJ worked with, and an aggressive groove that sounds better than I remembered. It's from his last album, Invincible - don't sneer, it sold 13 million copies.

Things I Do For You - This funked up song from Destiny is nearly an Off The Wall contender.

You Can't Win - The other MJ song from The Wiz is absurdly danceable and super-smooth. You can hear a mature artist being born and full of joy.

In The Closet - This still sounds futurist, not only because of the tricky production but also due to the left-field harmonies. The lyrics refer to "The truth of lust woman to man" - interesting noun placement - but the sometimes I think MJ was looking toward a post-racial, post-gender utopia. His tragic attempt to reach it was written on his body.


Butterflies - Invincible had a somewhat tortured genesis but you'd never know it from this stripped down, cozy ballad. Break Of Dawn from the same album is nearly as good. Any R&B singer today would give their eye teeth for a songs this good.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia



Cover albums are rarely universally praised, except perhaps by music publishers looking to squeeze some new life from an old copyright. I remember having this argument with my father when David Bowie's Bertolt Brecht's Baal came out. Dad was an old-school Brechtian and thought Bowie put a little too much of himself into his interpretation of the German master's songs. I was (and still am) a dyed in the wool Bowie fanatic - although one raised on the Marc Blitzstein Threepenny Opera - and thought the Thin White Duke could have pushed his own personality further in his versions. 

Therein lie some of the pitfalls of covering songs. If they're familiar chestnuts, do we just want to be reminded of something we have loved? Or do we want to hear a radical new take that opens up new possibilities in old structures? Do we want to hear a classic retooled to fit a newer artist's style? Or do we want that new artist to demonstrate hitherto unknown aspects of their talent? And what about the idea of a current favorite bringing an old song to light, something that influenced them and deserves wider exposure?

This brings me to Sing Into My Mouth by Iron And Wine & Ben Bridwell, a covers album that manages in its 12 songs to touch on almost every issue mentioned above, triumphing in every situation. And for their troubles, Sam Beam (who is Iron And Wine) and Bridwell have received mostly terrible and even dismissive reviews. Some of that could be due to the casual flavor lent by the cover painting, which shows a bearded dude "speaking" a toast to be drunk with two beer bottles. Some of the reviewers seem to think that's how Beam & Bridwell made the album: cracked a couple of cold ones, tuned a couple of guitars, hit "record" and just sang whatever came to mind. 

I'm calling foul on that construct. This is an extremely well-conceived survey of songs from the last 50 or so years, demonstrating a wide array of interests on both Beam & Bridwell's parts. It's also gorgeously produced by Beam, with an overall acoustic-based warmth that allows for many individual touches to fulfill their vision of each song. My only issue with the album is that Beam is one of the most gifted singers of his generation, near the pinnacle of Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, and Hamilton Leithauser, while Bridwell, leader of Band Of Horses, is merely good. So while I prefer the the songs where Beam takes the lead, the dichotomy in no way interrupts the flow of the listening experience. 

In a certain way, they have pulled this mosaic of songs from various places and times and placed them all in an imagined utopia - that of 1970's Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. Keep in mind that this is done without a shred of irony. And why not? Staples of AOR were known for their solid song structures, masterful studio productions and universal lyrical themes. Beam & Bridwell succeed so completely at this at my wife is convinced she heard nearly all of these songs on the radio. In the case of the songs by John Cale, Marshall Tucker Band, Sade, J.J. Cale and Bonnie Raitt, this is certainly possible. Spiritualized? Not so much. I don't remember listening to the radio much in 2001 and I'm not even sure The Straight and the Narrow was released as a single in this country. 

Either way, that song is a great example of the pleasure and depth of Sing Into My Mouth. I've always felt that Jason Pierce of Spiritualized had some good instincts and ideas but nothing I've ever heard from them felt fully realized, partly due to his voice, a fairly thin instrument that rarely reaches the level of his ambitions for the grandiose songs he writes. Despite this, there is a huge well of affection for his band, making for dangerous waters into which the cover artist must wade. Beam and Bridwell brush all that aside, stripping away Pierce's grandeur to find this lovely song, which they rebuild with pedal steel, organ, a Nashville backbeat, and - crucially - Beam's background vocals, a rich arrangement that envelops Bridwell's everyman delivery without ever overwhelming him. While I might like their version better, I now have new appreciation for Jason Pierce's skills as a song classicist.

Talking Heads are even more of a sacred cow than Spiritualized (mostly for good reason) but what a relief to hear This Must Be The Place rescued from its slightly too chirpy 80's production! Beam & Bridwell have received much love for their take on that song, however even more of a revelation is the version they do of Bulletproof Heart by Sade. For all her success, she is slightly underrated as an artist - it all sounds so smooth - but she is the real deal as a songwriter. And Sam Beam is the real deal as a quiet storm soul singer. He could do a whole album of soul and R&B and I would wake up early to get on line to buy it. Unsurprisingly for the man who wrote Woman King, Beam has a special sensitivity to the female perspective, which he shows again on the intimate performance of Raitt's Anyday Woman included here. Bridwell also gets his chance to put some soul-power into his voice when they do Am I A Good Man, a much-sampled slice of sixties soul by Them Two that can stand a new airing.

God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get), originally by El Perro Del Mar, is another salvage operation. Erasing the memory of that band's irritating and mannered vocals, Beam & Bridwell sing this charming song without affectation while applying a brooding restraint with lots of original bits and pieces to the arrangement. In the case of David Gilmour's No Way Out Of Here they combine the best aspects of his recording and the one made by Unicorn to come up with maybe the definitive version, full of dynamics and banked fire. And if their version of Ronnie Lane's Done This One Before is a virtual xerox of the original, let it serve as a reminder of the continuing relevance of a neglected rock & roll savant. If a few people go and buy some Ronnie Lane albums after hearing it I'm sure no one will be happier than Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell. 

The album ends with a haunted re-imagining of Pete Seeger's Coyote, big as the desert sky, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Bon Iver album. Seeger was a towering figure for sure, and someone who imbued my childhood with song - but he never let you forget that he was teaching you how to sing the song while he sang it. The dangers of populism, I suppose. Beam & Bridwell sing it as if it arose from their blood and demanded release. Along with the rest of Sing Into My Mouth it's a stunning reminder of the elasticity of great songs, which sometimes have to hibernate for decades before reaching their true fulfillment, or at least to show off the further facets contained within them. Blow out the cobwebs of what you think this album, or these songs, should sound like and just listen - then drink a toast of your own to these brave young masters of song. 

Sing Into My Mouth is available on all streaming services and in all stores. To hear nearly all of the original songs, visit my playlist here: http://open.spotify.com/user/jshatan/playlist/2N2i78MbKdVdZeseU3Gpvw.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Onstage And Off At MCA Day 2015


The Beastie Caddy
It's been three years since Adam Yauch aka MCA was felled by cancer in his prime, ending the active career of the Beastie Boys and breaking the hearts of friends and fans. Since then it's become clearer that I'm on the periphery of two tightly knit but exclusive groups - that of the band's inner circle and that of their dedicated fans. 

In the case of the first group, I know where I was and what I did in relationship to the rise of the Beasties. Even though I did not continue a professional career in music or photography - the two fields that tie me to their trajectory forevermore - the fact remains that I was present at the creation and even had a small hand in what proceeded. But even so, it's not as though I've broken bread with Ad-Rock or Mike D in this decade, or even this century. 

In the case of the second group, though I've loved a lot of their music, I will never be as big a fan of the Beastie Boys as some of the wonderful people I've met (mostly online) in the last four years. For one thing, it's hard to be a "fan" of someone you know as well as I knew Mike D. For another, I grew up in the same cultural milieu and have a shared affection for much of the music and some of the pop culture detritus that provided the foundation for the Beastie universe. While I didn't really feel Licensed To Ill, when I first heard Paul's Boutique I felt a certain familiarity with all the pieces they were pulling together and its genre-blending style jibed with my own listening habits.

While this betwixt and between feeling can be confusing at times, I have never felt ambivalent about attending MCA Day. I'm deeply offended by what happened to Adam even though I know cancer has no agency. I feel the same way about my son and my close friend Stephen, who both died in 1999. So I've wanted nothing more than to show my face at the event that sprang up spontaneously in Adam Yauch's memory the year he died and that has continued ever since. Even so, due to scheduling conflicts I was not able to get there until this year, the fourth annual. 

I don't know what the earlier years were like but what I found at Littlefield this year was a complex and heartfelt day of events run by Mike Kearney and a group of dedicated volunteers. There was already a good crowd when I arrived, some milling around outside, admiring the extravagantly decorated Cadillac parked out front, and some inside looking at MCA-inspired art and listening to a Nepalese hip hop duo. 

I had just greeted a few familiar faces when artist Andy Katz grabbed me and introduced me to Kearney. I had agreed in advance to say a few words to the crowd about the early days and apparently my time slot was coming up. I followed Mike backstage and met Jim Shearer, who was doing video of the event. He filmed me answering a few questions about the Young Aborigines and the Paul's Boutique album cover shoot.  

While the Nepalese rappers finished up, Mike asked me add my signature to some posters that would be given out to volunteers. Though this kind of request is always strange to me, I complied for the same reason I always do: maybe it will make someone happy. 

Then it was my time to go on stage. I spoke off the cuff so what follows is a paraphrase of what I told the audience. 

"Every universe has a Big Bang so maybe the Big Bang of the Beastie Boys universe is when I introduced Mike Diamond to John Berry." Then I showed them the visual aid I had with me, which was a  Pete Frame-style "Rock Family Tree" titled Young Abs & Stims. John Berry and I had drawn this out together in 1981, trying to wrap our heads around all the interconnected bands and side-projects in our circle of friends. 
Apologies To Pete Frame
I pointed to the top, where the Walden Jazz Band resides on the tree. "This is where Mike and I first played together. I played piano (not well) and he played drums. We had two songs. When John Berry told me he played guitar, I put them together. At first, they didn't like each other much but I told them to stick with it. I was planning to learn trombone [the Ska-revival was in full effect] but soon realized it would be too hard to play. They already had guitar and drums so I took up the bass and we formed the Young Aborigines."

I then described the 100th St. loft where John Berry lived with his father. Since his father wasn't around much it was the perfect place to rehearse and hang out. "Gradually," I continued, "We sort of began to collect people. Even though John's loft was far uptown, it became the place to hang out after a night at the clubs. There were some people who stuck around, though. People like Kate Schellenbach, who became the percussionist for the Young Abs, and Jill Cunniff, who ended up forming Luscious Jackson with Kate and others.

"Adam Yauch was another one who stayed. Right away I could see he was different. He was somehow more mature. A deep thinker. He could be a wild man but when you sat and talked with him, half the time your response would be: 'Hm. I hadn't thought of that.' We were both bassists in different bands with the same other people - an odd situation, but I never felt competitive with Adam."

Then I told the story of how I returned from vacation and was showing off my new thumb technique, popping my bass like an amateur Larry Graham. Adam came right over and said "Wow - you figured out how to do that! What are you doing, exactly?" He absorbed everything I showed him and saved it for a future that was at that time unknown. 

"We all know what happened next," I continued, "Global stardom, the number one debut album in Columbia Records' history, world tours, etc. Because  of that I didn't see any of them for some time. Eventually, Mike and I got back in touch and began having lunch regularly. It was at one lunch, at Jerry's on Spring Street, that Mike brought up the album cover. His brother and I were teasing him for not knowing who Gustav Klimt was when he told us that they had a great idea for the second album but had no idea how to make it happen. 'What is it?' I asked. 'We want to do a 360 panorama of an intersection on the Lower East Side,' he told me. 'I can do that no problem," I responded. 

"And so we did it. I rented equipment, hired an assistant, and met them at the appointed time and place. The most amazing part for me was after we had set everything up, taken a Polaroid for exposure, and it was time to take the actual pictures. I crouched under the tripod in the middle of the street with the cable release in my hand and called 'Action!' I watched in amazement as my friends began jumping, running, skating, just going nuts. I think that's when I realized they had become performers, and very good ones at that."

I felt it was time to finish so I concluded by saying, "I hate what happened to Adam, but if that's what had to happen I'm glad we can all be here together to deal with it. Thanks to all of you for coming and to everyone who made this day happen."

With Chris Whitaker
I left the stage, shook some hands, and realized I was starving. I went to get a quick lunch and returned to Littlefield, where I relished the opportunity to meet in person several people I only knew online. One of these folks was Chris Whitaker, who for the past year has been working on an incredible 16 foot long, four panel oil painting of the Paul's Boutique cover. He and his family had driven to Brooklyn from Detroit to display it. I heard other stories of long journeys as I mingled, like the man whose sister drove him from  New Orleans to celebrate his 50th birthday at MCA Day. 

Chris Whitaker's Incredible Painting
Over the course of the afternoon we heard from Unlearn, a Rage Against The Machine cover band who also did a smoking cover of Sabotage, and Cey Adams, who was the art director at Def Jam for years and has some stories. DJ Hurricane was in impressive form, both on the decks and on the mic, performing Elbow Room and Stick'Em Up, two of the best songs from his slept-on 1995 debut, The Hurra. Coming full circle, his DJ was the son of the late Jam Master Jay. Hip hop truly is forever. 

The performance highlight for me was when Darrell McDaniels, otherwise known as DMC took the stage. This is when I became a pure fan, reveling in his storytelling and nimble rapping. I shouted along to Walk This Way like everyone else and jumped around when he joined forces with Unlearn for It's Tricky, connecting to the anarchic spirit that had given birth to Licensed To Ill - maybe for the first time. 
Smartphone Pandemonium For DMC & Unlearn
DMC was gracious to all as he left the venue, posing for many pictures. When I got my chance, I introduced myself and said "Even though I was on that stage a few hours ago, when you were up there, I was a pure fan. I still have my 12" of It's Like That - that song blew our minds!" 
It's Like That - And That's The Way It Is
It was that kind of a day, where people gave me a high five for coming and bringing them closer to the roots of this thing, and where I had the chance to express gratitude to DMC, Hurricane, and others for doing the same. I was handed phones to take pictures of fans with Glen E. Friedman - a moment with at least a small freight of irony - and posed for photos with others. 

The ongoing vitality of MCA Day not only here but in Chicago, LA, Brazil, and elsewhere, proves that the legacy of the Beastie Boys is alive - and even growing, judging by the amount of kids at Littlefield. In the end, Yauch had the last word. As I walked back to the subway, trying to sort out all that had transpired, his wonderfully raspy voice echoed in my mind: "On and on and on and on and on..."

Gorgeous Artwork By Andy Katz
You might also like:
Adam Yauch Remembered: A Tale Of Two Bassists
Still Luscious


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Channel Surfing With TV Girl


Roland Barthes could have a field day with the array of signs and signifiers contained in Brad Petering's look when he fronted TV Girl at Shea Stadium on a sweltering Friday night a couple of weeks ago. 

His beach-bleached blond curls sat under a hat featuring the logo of Chinatown, the John Huston classic, hat and hair representing the sun and screen duality of California, where TV Girl is based. Then there was the slightly halfhearted bling, a few gold chains around his neck, referring to the origins of the block-rocking beats that underpin most TV Girl songs. Finally, there was the sharp looking t-shirt for Theoretical Girls, the almost-theoretical no-wave band fronted by Glenn Branca 35 years ago, pointing up the slightly arty side of the TV Girl sound. 

Unlike Branca's world, however, there were no guitars on stage at Shea. The four piece band consisted of Petering on vocals and electronics, Wyatt Harmon on keyboards, Jason Wyman on electronics and percussion, and, doubling Peterings vocals on most songs, the charming Novelty Daughter (more about her later). But the energy from the start was full on rock band and didn't let up throughout the set. The hip hop influence became more apparent in concert thanks to Shea's boomin' system, which kept the bodies moving. When they played Birds Don't Sing, their most popular song ("Over a million plays on the internet!" crowed Petering), the crowd exploded into a sweaty heaving mass. I would encourage them all to listen to the rest of French Exit, TV Girl's excellent album from last year. 

TV Girl is slightly reminiscent of early St. Etienne, with delightful hints of 60's pop, occasional bits of movie dialogue, clever samples, and seriously catchy melodies. My wife pointed out that it's far less melancholy than St. Etienne, which is true probably because TV Girl doesn't fetishize the past the way that British band does. It's great fun and Petering's wit is also fully present in how he relates to the audience. He's modest and self-deprecating while also possessing unaffected charisma. There's more I could tell you - about Charlene, their mannequin mascot, for example, or the awesome group dance that ended the set. All that combined with the dramatic improvement in songwriting between their earlier work and French Exit has me keeping a close eye on TV Girl and eager for another encounter. 

Shea Stadium was nearly empty when we walked into the rough-hewn and un-air conditioned space ("Cool!" said one of my friends, "It's like the old days!"). It turned out everyone was crammed onto the balcony, trying to catch a breeze or a smoke - mainly the latter. Most of them came in when Novelty Daughter, took the stage to start the night. Of the three on the bill she was the only one I hadn't had time to check out in advance. Fortunately, she turned out to be a sweet surprise. 

Her Twitter handle is Shawn Tootle and her real name is Faith Harding but Novelty Daughter somehow fits her performing persona to a T. She makes her sounds with a laptop and a small keyboard, starting up each gleaming track with the touch of a couple of buttons. Then she pours out her 21st Century art songs with the voice of a jazz chanteuse, a rich contralto over which she has exquisite control. In short, she can really sing!

Novelty Daughter was quite captivating for the entirety of her set. My only hesitation is one I sometimes have with solo performers, where you wonder if having a collaborator would lead to a little more development of some of the songs. That said, it was all new to me and the fact that I was still singing one of the songs - I think it was called I Sing Hallelujah - two days later is a very good sign indeed. I'm looking forward to her first "monetized product" (her words) coming out in January. Until then, download her 2013 EP and get familiar with her unique style. 

In between Novelty Daughter we got Jerry Paper, who I found out about through Ad Hoc a while ago. Trying to describe his stuff to my friend, the best I could come up with was "transgressive synth yacht." As that suggests, his sound is quirky, deceptively airy, and uses some of the sounds of pop music even though it isn't that, really. What I couldn't prepare my friends for was Jerry Paper's stagecraft, which consisted of him wearing a kimono and socks and singing through a headset mic while performing a series of highly stylized choreographed routines. 

I stuck with it for a while but began to find the dancing repetitive and distracting. After a few songs I sat down on one of Shea's broken down sofas in the back and just listened. It was just as entertaining as when I sit at my desk with it playing, except the sound was better. No big deal if Jerry Paper remains a recorded phenomenon for me. Give his latest album, Carousel, a try if you want to hear something different - I know I'll keep listening. 

All in all it was a good night in Bushwick. Don't change the channel on TV Girl - they're most certainly ready for prime time. 

Saturday, August 08, 2015

A Pair From Plum


“Through the ear, we shall enter the invisibility of things.” - Edmond Jabes (French-Jewish Poet, 1912-1991)

Sarah Plum's new CD, Music For A New Century, which features two world premiere recordings, has actually been in the works for four years. It was in 2011 that she gave the first performance of Sidney Corbett's Yael for violin and orchestra. She had just released Absconditus, an album devoted to Corbett's work and knew that this new piece should be recorded as well. But paired with what? When the perfect choice failed to present itself, she took matters into her own hands and commissioned a new concerto from Christopher Adler, another young composer whose music she had championed.

Plum is a fine example of the activist performer, having commissioned nearly a dozen compositions in the last three years alone. Talk about being the change you wish to see - or in this case hear - in the world! Her hope, of course, is that the life of Corbett and Adler's music will not end here, but that others will take it up and make it part of the modern repertory. For that to happen the music must be of sufficient quality and her playing must be very convincing. Is that the case? Read on...

The first piece on Music For A New Century is Corbett's Yael, a work in four movements that takes inspiration from the writings of Edmond Jabes, specifically his work about Yael, a fairly obscure biblical figure known for killing an enemy general by hammering a tent peg through his temple. Corbett describes the music as a depiction of Yael wandering the "ruins of Judaic culture," but I'm not sure if that is before or after those dramatic events.

But you don't have to know any of that to feel the questing nature of the violin writing, and the tension in the melodies. Unlike the sometimes oppositional nature of the traditional concerto, the orchestra is often there to support what the violin is going through. Like a Greek chorus, the other instruments amplify the violin's oratory and provide commentary and illumination. Kudos to the Chamber Music Midwest Festival Orchestra and conductor Akira Mori for their sympathetic playing.

The first movement, Breath, has Plum tentatively emerging from the darkness, a melancholy wisp looking for signs of life. Winds and other strings gradually emerge, almost appearing the breathe alongside the violin. Pizzicato sounds delicately encircle the violin, providing a little sparkle but there is little respite from the almost exhausted sound world. An image of people waking from a drugged slumber with no idea of where they are or how they got there comes to mind, as the other instruments poke and prod with their questions.

The movement ends with gathering strength and then we're into The Dark, angular, fragmented, trying to marshall forces. For brief moments, the instruments take up a martial tone, driving forward, relentless but unsure. The triangle is a marvelous touch here. Dance rhythms are hinted at, the horns bleat, and then...steel drums! A most unusual, original touch, which works wonderfully, the bright metallic sounds finding the spaces between the strings. This moment also showcases the excellent production, which is warm and involving while still transparent and well-defined. 

The violin is alone again, mostly, at the start of Shirayael, the third movement. Single notes talk back and forth, seeming to be too devastated to create whole phrases. Then comes crescendo, horns and percussion raising a whirlwind of sound. But it does't last. Yael, or Plum, is alone again at the start of the fourth movement, called Archipelago. More questions, maybe the same ones, end this distinctive, quietly intense piece. 

Christopher Adler's Violin Concerto is quite a different thing, kicking off with Shift (The Knife Grinder), spiky and full of stop-start rhythms and clattering percussion. The call and response between soloist and orchestra is a little more traditional and the movement ends with what feels like a cadenza. The second movement, Verelloe, quietly spooky with low sounds from the harp, stands in for the adagio that often forms the middle movement of three. So, classical architecture then, but the steel and glass sheath is purely modern. Adler's writing here is very beautiful, but also unsettling, and he develops his ideas impressively in this long movement.

Verelloe grows darker as it nears its end, fading out before the start of Tektonika, the final movement. There's lots of drama here, with a wide dynamic range and some violence to the rhythms, especially in a Stravinskian herky-jerky section in the middle. San Diego New Music and conductor Nicholas Deyoe handily dispatch anything the composer throws at them. Adler counts Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich as an influence and you can hear it in the angles and sharp contrasts. The end of the movement, and the concerto, is pensive and lyrical at the same time, with a worried ostinato working behind the violin line, which eventually ascends on its own, seeking a hopeful future from a new perspective. 

Both Corbett and Adler are accomplished composers and each piece feels very complete. This is not difficult music but it is challenging on an emotional level and well worth the journey it takes you on. Each artist draws on something with great personal meaning for them but puts it in a context that allows anyone to find their place in the sounds. Plum's playing is exemplary throughout, with a level of comfort that allows you to concentrate on the music fully. Based on her performances, both works deserve to be heard and played widely. However, until the next brave soul schedules a performance we have these excellent recordings to enjoy.

Plum - busy as ever - also just released volume one of her traversal of Bela Bartok's music for violin and piano. Christopher Lovelace is her partner here and on this well-programmed collection they play the Romanian Folk Dances, Rhapsodies 1 and 2, Sonata No. 2, and three Hungarian Folk Tunes. There's a lot of playfulness to Bartok's writing and Plum's approach is very lighthearted on the whole. While I prefer the gutsier attack of, say, Peter Nagy or Isabelle Faust in this repertoire, Plum's take is perfectly valuable and I look forward to hearing Volume 2. 

These releases continue to establish Sarah Plum as a valuable presence in the world of music, new music especially. It's great to hear her making her mark with these two releases and I just hope I can keep up with her in the future!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wilco's Star Power

The pre-order. The Deluxe Edition. The leaked track. The video. The Super-Deluxe Limited Edition. The website landing page. The merch. As susceptible as I am to the Pavlovian triggers of the modern album release scaffold, I do sometimes wonder if the gilding drips off the lily and forms a cage for the artist. It may be, in fact, that all of these extras are better suited to works that are already solidly canonized - go to town, Jimmy Page - but can be a drag on the ascent of a band's new music.

Wilco were solidly on that path with their last two or three albums - I have the Deluxe Editions to prove it - but have ditched it all with their new album, Star Wars, which was released as a free download with no advance warning about a week ago. Why? Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy has the answer: "Well, the biggest reason, and I'm not sure we even need any others, is that we thought it would be fun."

Remember fun? Gaiety can be in short supply when a band is 20 years into their career, which may be why it's been four years since Wilco's last album and why they spent the last couple of years in a semi-atomized state, with each member pursuing outside interests. But whatever the trajectory that led us here, there is new music from Wilco, which is always worth celebrating.

EKG kicks off the 11-song album with a short sharp shock to the system, a dissonant and dense little instrumental overture to what lies ahead. Which is More..., a fuzzed-out rocker with a touch of Glam. Nels Cline's guitar sparkles for just a second or two and there's a great moment when the rhythm guitars nearly drown everything out - more, indeed.

Random Name Generator is a romp, with a joyful riff and some Pere Ubu-esque electronics buried in the mix. An instant live favorite, no doubt. The Joke Explained is the sound of a band with the entire history of American music at their disposal, as echoes of folk, country, Chess Records, and 70's rock blend effortlessly. "If I had known, I would've never believed," Tweedy sings - and haven't we all been there?

You Satellite quiets things down to a slow burn and confirms that in the production and the arrangements, Star Wars is the most unified Wilco album since A Ghost Is Born over a decade ago. The three guitars of Tweedy, Patrick Sansone and Nels Cline create a beautiful sound, blending together in a thicket of sound bolstered by Mikael Jorgensen's electronics while the rhythm section of John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche cooks up a storm, six people playing as one. Clearly a Wilco classic from the first listen and maybe proof positive of the benefits of spending time apart.

"Why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?" Tweedy sings in the low key Taste The Ceiling, and wouldn't we all like to know? Like that line, the song seems to ask more questions than it answers, providing solace via its detailed arrangement and comforting backbeat. Pickled Ginger begins with guitar so blissfully fuzzy that it could be called furry, and more than a touch of T-Rex to the melody. Although it builds up a head of steam near the end, it's more like a sketchy Marc Bolan outtake than a jukebox single, but it's that tossed off quality that has you hitting repeat as soon as it ends.

Where Do I Begin also feels a bit like a demo for the first two minutes or so, with Tweedy accompanied only by two guitars. But then the backwards drums and bold George Harrison riffs burst in and you know you're listening to a fully finished product - and a damned good one at that. Cold Slope comes together with some fragmentary guitar and a druggy pulse before opening up into a rhapsodic section that ends as quickly as it began. The pulse returns, growing into something more rocked out before cutting back down again. Tweedy murmurs, the guitars converse and there is sense of expanded possibility. Verse/chorus/verse? Sure, but you don't have to all the time.

The pulse of Cold Slope leads directly into the stomp of King Of You, which sometimes threatens to become that old favorite I'm The Man Who Loves You, but they rein it in. Album closer Magnetized explores some of the melodic and sonic terrain of the later Beatles while remaining resolutely Wilco. It's an introspective gem that may be an ode to the band's inner magnetism, which keeps them together through thick and thin, or to the attraction that keeps us fans of the band tuned in to their every move. Either way, it's beautiful, a quiet little anthem and a perfect ending to what begins as a delightful surprise and becomes gradually more nuanced. And you know what? If they put out a Star Wars Death Star Super Deluxe Limited Edition with extra songs as good as these, sign me up for the pre-order.

 You might also enjoy:

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 1

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 2: Tweedy & Son

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Summer Party Mix: Short Takes, Singles, Etc.



It's summer, prime mixtape season, so here are some short takes on recent albums and singles with party potential that should soundtrack your next shindig.

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf While we wait for Chance The Rapper to follow up Acid Rap we can enjoy this sunny and eclectic group effort from him and his buddies (some of them famous, like Busta Rhymes and Janelle Monae). Perhaps some of the positive vibrations are little more than bromides ("Just be you!") but it's hard not to be infected by the joyous spirit that runs through Surf. With darkness emanating from TV's and headlines everywhere this is a welcome dose of sweetness. This is free on iTunes so don't hesitate.

Beck - Dreams Well, he said the next one would be different. After the triumph of the GRAMMY-winning Morning Phase (also my #2 album from 2014), the world was Beck's oyster and he's found a new direction: polished dance-pop. While that might make you think that this notorious appropriator is being cheesy and ironic, Dreams is beautifully produced and seems completely sincere. It's delightful. I think when he performs at the GRAMMY's next year, the Twittering masses will remember who he is.

Shamir - Call It Off This young singer/songwriter from Las Vegas is getting a lot of attention and rightfully so - he's bursting with talent. After a time playing country, he's thrown his lot in with a brand of stripped down electronic R&B that at its  best is irresistible. Call It Off is the most appealing song for me, an addictively danceable kiss off that will have you moving no matter where you are. Give his album Ratchet a try, too - there's some depth there. Shamir is one to watch.

Aleksam - All Is Forgiven I heard this haunting dub-inflected beaut on an episode of Don Cheadle's excellent House Of Lies. Turns out Aleksam is the duo of Sal Masekela and Sunny Levine, the respective offspring of Hugh Masekela and his collaborator Stewart Levine. So it's in their blood - get transfused.

Holly Herndon - Morning Sun A lot of the talk about Herndon focuses on her process. While it is interesting to learn how she uses natural and found sounds to create electronic textures, it doesn't always pay off for the listener. I could scold myself for a lack of commitment - or I could just dial up Morning Sun, the sleekest song on her album Platform. Who's going to pony up the remix? Breton - you in?

Vince Staples - Summertime OK, I know you can't dance to this moody one-off from Staples' interesting debut - but you need a song to listen to after (most of) your guests have left. Even if his ambition to "be Pink Floyd" is yet to be realized, the mere fact of it is to be celebrated. This could be forever, baby...

A$AP Rocky - LSD That Pink Floyd reference might make more sense on this woozy wonder (the Gaspar Noe-influenced video is aces, too). Can't say I've ever taken the A$AP world domination plan very seriously (RIP A$AP Yams), but Rocky keeps getting better. There's other good stuff on At.Long.Last.A$AP, too, but this is classic. 

Run The Jewels (feat. Cuz) - Bust No Moves Whaddya know, even El-P and Killer Mike are getting a little spacey. But Mike's verse is as down to earth as it gets on this great jam - originally a Record Store Day exclusive.

Raekwon (feat. Estelle) - All About You This lush gem has been floating around for a couple of years and is now a high point of the album Fly International Luxurious Art. It borrows some of its drama from the Isaac Hayes school - kudos to producer Jerry Wonda - and Rae and Estelle pair up nicely. While not a classic, there's other good stuff on the album as well. 

Alessia Cara - Here The borrowing from Isaac Hayes is more explicit in Here, as Cara draws on the same Ike's Rap sample that fueled trip-hop classics by both Tricky and Portishead. Here is an ode to introversion that I can relate to, but the passion in Cara's voice means she really wants to connect - and she does

Singers & Players - Reaching The Bad Man This dubby conqueror is just one of many great tracks on Sherwood At The Controls Vol. 1 1979-1984, a killer compilation of some of Adrian Sherwood's great post-punk productions. Singers & Players was Sherwood's super-group featuring Jamaican eminences (Mikey Dread, Bim Sherman) and British avant gardists (Ari Up, Keith Levene), a fruitful blend indeed. Want more? Grab this deadly mix from Test Pressing.

Jahdan Blakkamoore - Sweetest Ting The Guayana-born Blakkamoore has the perfect voice for post-dancehall digital reggae, burnished and powerful but capable of both delicacy and joy. This song is the purest dose of sunshine from his third album, Order Of Distinction, but there's more to love there and on his earlier records. 

Buena Vista Social Club - Lost And Found This mix of thrilling live performances and nearly top-flight outtakes is the perfect hit to quench your nostalgia for when nostalgic Cuban sounds burned up the airwaves. It's a really good time and can add spice to many a mix. Right now I'm hooked on Tiene Sabor, featuring the ever-magnificent Omara Portuondo.

Various Artists - Next Cut! Yet another devastating collection of reggae rarities from Pressure Sounds, focusing on sounds from Bunny "Striker" Lee & Friends. Take your pick for your mix. 

The Notations - Still Here (1967-73) NĂºmero Group has made their name with dozens of releases bringing obscure soul music to light, as they do on this great single-artist collection. The Notations might not be The Temptations but they had a lot to offer - one listen to I Can't Stop should make you a fan. 

Fetty Wap - Trap Queen I heard the executors of Francis Scott Key's estate petitioned to have this become the new American anthem, but Soulja Boy voted them down. Sour grapes, I say. 

Your Old Droog - Kinison There was a brief period where a dash of mystery had people wondering if this was Nas in disguise. Now we know he's his own man, as this pop-culture obsessed album demonstrates. He can be funny, as on Gentrify My Hood, or blithely vicious, as on Homicide. He does have some of Nas's crisp New York flow, which could make it easy for that legend to imagine biting some of the excellent beats by El RTNC and others - better be careful, boys. Also give an ear to The Nicest, a six-track EP that just came out. Busy man - get busy catching up.

Check out my playlist featuring all of these plus a few assists from the best records of the year. What's grooving you?