Saturday, September 24, 2016

College Tour = Record Store, Part 2

The No Judgment Zone at Turn It Up
Since part one of this series we've been on several tours that did not equal a record store for one reason or another. Middlebury in Vermont has no record stores for one, preferring to outsource its music shopping to Burlington, at least an hour to the north. Our trip to Connecticut College was tightly scheduled before an important family occasion so I admit to not even Googling the situation. Brunswick, Maine, the town that contains Bowdoin, had an intriguing looking store on the main drag that had a sign saying "Vinyl," but we had to get on the road after indulging over at Gelato Fiasco, a sacrifice I don't regret one bit. 

But this past weekend was Amherst, which not only boasts membership in the Five College Consortium but also proximity to at least as many music emporia. Most of the pins on the map fell just to the west of Amherst, in Northampton and Florence, but the town itself has one store of its own, Mystery Train, which is inexplicably closed on Saturdays, even when school is in session. "Small business fail," my wife remarked as we tucked into the marvelous Tea Rolls at Fresh Side, and I'm inclined to agree, although they are open on Sundays.

So after lunch we drove the six miles to Northampton, which is also a bit of a drive down memory lane for me. My parents both had chronic musculoskeletal issues, especially my father who was nearly crippled by them at times. Somehow they discovered an amazing chiropractor in Northampton, which is about an hour from our country house. I never minded being dragged along to see Dr. Kemper because Northampton was such a great town, even for a kid, and there was a serious ice cream shop in walking distance from his office. Dr. Kemper even worked on me once - and he was everything he was cracked up to be (sorry). 

But it wasn't long before ice cream took second fiddle to a record store I found just down the street. I bought some of my first used records there, including a beautiful-sounding copy of Dylan's Desire that I still treasure. While I can't remember the name or exact location of that store, I am heartened to discover that Turn It Up is holding it down just off the main street and down a few steps. On the map I was a little confused about whether Turn It Up was a nickname for a branch of Newbury Comics, but it turned out they were just across the street from each other. It's a testament to Northampton's record-buying culture that the two stores can coexist in such close proximity. 

They are distinctly different experiences in any case, with Turn It Up being a great example of a classic record store with a ratio of probably 85% used stock (on vinyl, CD and cassette) to 15% new releases. They also had movies on DVD and BlueRay. Newbury Comics on the other hand has records, movies, geeky toys and accessories, and, of course, comics. 

When I entered Turn It Up I didn't really have anything particular in mind at first so I was pleased to discover a robust New Arrivals section which was mostly cross-genre, with supplements for Blues, Soul, Country, etc. I began flipping, happily noting that most everything was reasonably priced. The few exceptions were those "limited edition" colored vinyl releases that were in many cases merely lipstick on a pig. But if you love a pig, you'll pay the premium to make it pretty, I guess. 

I quickly found an intriguing compilation called simply Electronic Music, which looked to be from the early 60's and featured an early work by Walter Carlos - before he became Wendy and had international success with Switched On Bach and the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also found a double album compilation of songs by Black Roots, one of the key bands in the Bristol Sound of British reggae. Both albums went on the pile for the moment. 

When I was nearly done, there was a woman who was just starting to flip. "Let me know if you find any Hot Tuna," she whispered loudly to her friend across the room. "What?" he responded, "Why are you whispering?" "Yeah," I interjected, "no need to whisper, no judgment here!" After all, Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits was playing. "Besides, Papa John Creach rules!" "Oh my god, I love him," she responded. I told her how my sister was a huge Hot Tuna fan and had all the albums, including the violinist's solo record. "That was the only one I really liked," I related, "but I hope you find something today." Guess what - she did, and for just $3.00. The only thing better than finding your joy in the record store is finding it cheap!

The new arrivals skimmed, I wandered around a little bit, seeing what caught my eye. While checking out the box sets I overheard one of the guys behind the counter rhapsodizing over a Montreaux appearance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk as he rang up a sale of a CD by the avant garde jazz reed player. "By the way," I mentioned, "Something came into my inbox about a new documentary about Kirk. I didn't get a chance to follow up yet but it might be worth checking out. Pretty sure it's the first film about him." "Wow, cool," said the happy customer, "I'll definitely look into that!" Sure, you might have this kind of interaction on a listserv or in a Facebook group - but it feels different face-to-face. 

One last circuit and I spotted a Bill Nelson section in the CD's. I used to literally be in his fan club (I have the marvelous exclusive singles and EP's to prove it) but I don't actually have any of his stuff on CD and his music is only patchily represented on Spotify. This made What Now, What Next, a 1998 two-CD set compiling songs from his own Cocteau label, mighty attractive at $8.00. I'm glad I got it, too, as many of these songs are old friends for me while some of them are brand new, having never been released elsewhere. It could be argued, however, that Nelson may have been at times too enthusiastic in his embrace of 80's electronics - and that some of his Be-Bop Deluxe stuff sounds better than ever.

My meter was running low and my wife and daughter had transitioned from the hunt for second-hand clothes to the hunt for caffeine. This meant it was time to finalize my choices. A quick check of Spotify and I saw that most if not all of the Black Roots songs were on there so I put that album to the side. I inspected the Electronic Music album and it had some worrying discoloration on the vinyl. Not to worry - there was a turntable and headphones in the corner so I gave it a preview and it sounded great. Sold. A complete listen when I got home revealed a beautiful series of sounds occupying a nearly perfect middle ground between Edgard Varese's Poeme Electronique and some of Eno's Ambient work, a dotted line that needed to be drawn.

While I was paying I suddenly remembered the new Light In The Attic Betty Davis release, featuring a lost session produced by Miles Davis. They didn't have it, but they did have a loyalty card which gets stamped for every $10 you spend. Ten stamps and you get $10 off your next purchase. I think I'll definitely get back to Turn It Up, even if my daughter doesn't go to Amherst! I'm also delighted to discover that Turn It Up has a handful of branches, if far fewer than Newbury Comics, so I might have another opportunity to get a stamp sooner than I thought.

I had a little more time so I dashed across the street to Newbury Comics for a Betty Davis surgical strike. The guy at the counter seemed vaguely aware of the album when I asked if they had it, saying "We should," and punching numbers into an inventory terminal. First he led me to the CD's and started looking. I indicated that I wanted to get the vinyl version so he brought me deeper into the store and started looking through the rock vinyl, unsuccessfully. "If you have a funk and soul section it might be in there," I offered. They did! Done. There's no loyalty card at Newbury but they did add my email to their mailing list, which is another way to try to continue the relationship. And isn't that what it's all about - relationships?

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College Tour = Record Store, Pt. 1
Vinyl And Grit: RSD 16
Everybody Get In Line: RSD 2015
RSD 2014
Scenes From A Record Fair
Working In Nashville

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Kanye And The Converted

I don't make a habit of unfriending people for having contrary opinions. However, this resolve is not tested often as it just so happens that at least 90% of my social (media) circle is made up of left-leaning, pro-choice, anti-LGBTQ discrimination, pro-civil rights social justice warrior types. But there's one hot button issue where I feel like a minority in my own newsfeed: Kanye West. While I value my friends and acquaintances for other reasons, the unfortunate fact is that some of them have no problem parroting commonly held groupthink about Kanye, namely that he is no-talent, idiotic, egotistical jerk. While I can't necessarily defend his actions in some cases, I will speak up for the records as I have formed a deeply personal relationship with most of them.

Even so, I didn't realize I was feeling musically oppressed until I walked into the sleekly renovated halls of Madison Square Garden one recent evening and found myself surrounded by thousands of Kanye fans - and they were amped. There was an excited buzz and sense of camaraderie even among those on the hideously long lines for merch. A security guard noted my Mobb Deep t-shirt and I said "Yes - I thought I'd bring some New York flavor to the show." "You actually listen to this stuff?" he asked. "Hell, yes," I responded, "I've been listening to hip hop since the days of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five!" These are my people, I thought, and it felt good, even before I knew what the night held in store.

Let me rewind for a second. A week prior, I had no idea I was going to see Kanye. Tickets went on sale in the spring and just couldn't plan that far in advance, especially with all the college tours we knew were on the horizon. Also, I had already bought tickets for Dylan and Mavis Staples at Tanglewood and wasn't sure I had another big ticket concert in me, especially with the prospect of a bot-fighting refresh refresh REFRESH session on Ticketmaster. I heard the concerts sold out in seconds. My nephew had managed to secure a block of tickets for my sister's family - on three different nights in three different cities. I was glad to avoid that kind of drama. 

Then, the Friday before Labor Day, I got an email from Ticketmaster telling me new seats had been released. Feeling skeptical but spontaneous, I clicked the link - and saw row after row of seats at $226 per. Not happening. In a last ditch click, I re-sorted the list low to high and voila! Affordable seats! They were high up and described as "rear view" but having read the review of the opening night I didn't think that was important, with the moving stage and everything. After a quick consultation with my wife, I pulled the trigger on tickets for me and my daughter.

So that's how we found ourselves in the 413 section of the Blue Seats in MSG, watching the crowd assemble to a soundtrack of ambient, ominous sounds reminiscent of the darker moments from Fripp & Eno's Evening Star. Fog machines started up, adding to the sense of anticipation and mystery. There was a swirl of activity around us as people repeatedly took the wrong seats and then had to relocate when the actual ticketholders showed up. These transactions were all uniformly polite and good humored. There were no grievances in our little section of the venue - I've been to opera performances where the crowd was less well-behaved. Filling the arena was a slow process but it gave us an opportunity to observe the massive rig Kanye's crew had assembled around and over the floor. We watched as black clad technicians wearing harnesses took their places high in the rafters and contemplated what their nights were like, huddled at great heights near the roof of one arena or another.

Finally, at about 9:45 PM, the fog machines kicked into overdrive, the lights blacked out and the crowd went nuts. I could just barely make out the platform closest to us tilting backwards into a cloud of smoke. When it returned to level, Kanye was there and the excitement exploded as everyone jumped to their feet, cheering louder than ever. Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2 kicked in, Kanye began rhyming, and the entire crowd - about 20,000 people - matched him word for word. It would have been thrilling even if Kanye's platform hadn't began moving over the floor, illuminating the masses underneath as they writhed manically, dancing their asses off. Smartphones went up all around the arena, looking like beautiful constellations and giving the lie to all those artists who would ask you to check your device at the door of the show.
Smartphone Starfield
By the second song I realized the brilliance of Kanye's conception: he had made the crowd into the show. Considering how often the charge of egotism is lobbed at him, it was almost ironic how much the concert invited our participation and elevated the individuals in the audience, transforming us into full participants, especially those on the floor. On more than one occasion, Kanye even began a song again so the sing-along could kick off in unison and we could all be together.

Unlike his recent rambling and unfocused remarks at the VMA's, Kanye was in full command of his performance, barreling through songs in quick succession, dancing athletically in a fashion that did not seem overly choreographed while making full use of his tethered status on the platform. He only let up during the couple of moments when his platform would retreat to the end of the arena to allow for an enormous central platform to engage in a sort of ballet mecanique, twisting and turning this way and that, illuminating different sections of the audience with banks of spotlights. 

Kanye also pushed the limits of his constant near-accessibility by lying down on the platform and extending a hand to the gyrating masses. Even this gesture felt humble rather than magisterial and electrified the whole arena. About a two-thirds of the way through, Kanye also revealed that he wasn't alone after all, shouting out singer Tony Williams, who has provided hooks since West's first album, and bringing up the lights at the south end of the arena to reveal his band. I couldn't see what configuration he was using but it looked like more than just a DJ and a vocalist. The setup also included the usual giant screens, but instead of giving close-ups for those far from the action they displayed artfully distorted visions of what was taking place down below.

While the staging felt like the future, the setlist took judicious turns to Kanye's past, with killer takes on Can't Tell Me Nothing, Power, Heartless, Blood On The Leaves (a daring choice) and especially the mighty New Slaves and Jesus Walks. If any song in his catalog was meant to be sung by 20,000 people it was the latter - indeed, that may be the definitive way to experience this classic track. Naturally, there was a big helping of The Life of Pablo, whose scattershot songs ended up working great in concert, with the possible exception of Wolves, which was slightly stilted out of the studio. 

Kanye sequenced the show like a great mixtape, dropping in THat Part, the Schoolboy Q song-of-the-summer on which he has a feature, and ending with Ultralight Beam, Pablo's opening cut. As the over-the-top gospel stylings filled the arena in a way that was almost overwhelming, the fog grew in intensity and Kanye's platform parked itself at one end of the floor, tilting backwards in a mirror image of his arrival. Then the lights came up and he was gone. Kanye had left the building. 

Would I have stood for another song or two? Sure. But this was more memorable and as they used to say in vaudeville (and probably at Shakespeare's Globe or even the theaters of Ancient Greece): Always leave them wanting more. 

The glow of the night continues to echo in the days since, armoring me against my naysaying friends. I don't think I'll have any problem laughing it off the next time one of them gets apoplectic about something stupid Kanye said. I've been to the show and they can't tell me nothin'.

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A Vacation In Hip-Hop Nation

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Vacation In Hip-Hop Nation

We went to Colorado to visit the in-laws and ended up in Hip-Hop Nation. What happened was our rental car had Sirius XM so I started scrolling through the stations, looking for those mythical shows I always read about but have never heard. The first named station I came across was simply called Elvis - and that's exactly what you got. First we heard a good song then we heard Bossa Nova Baby, which would be more tolerable if it didn't bait you into thinking you were going to hear The King sing Jobim - a heavenly proposition - and then switch you to vaguely Latinate generic pop. After a brief discussion with my wife about how Leiber & Stoller could write a song at the height of the Bossa Nova boom, include those words in the title, and then completely ignore the genre, I scrolled on, soon arriving at Hip-Hop Nation.

The display told me Torae was the DJ and that the song was Kanye West's Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2, featuring Desiigner, which I've listened to many times on The Life Of Pablo. In context, it turned out to both fit the format and transcend it. The beats have plenty of the spacious, minimalist production of many of the songs we heard, although more artistically deployed, but nothing else anything as starkly emotional as Kanye's "I don't even want to talk about it" line. Hip-Hop Nation is completely uncensored, too, and there was something fascinating about Kanye injecting that model's "bleached asshole" into something resembling a national conversation, beamed across the satellites. He didn't invent it, after all - it's something that some people do these days - he just chose to include it in a song, as valid a choice as the one made by the first artist to paint a smoke-belching steam engine at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Quelle horreur

Even after all the times I've heard the track - and it came up at least twice a day until we left - Desiigner's verse remains fine but hardly memorable. Kanye's reign, however, was not limited to his own song, he was also ruling with his guest verse on THat Part by Schoolboy Q. I've heard Kanye phone in a feature before, but this time he brought his A-Game. Let's just say that "beggars can't be choosers, this ain't Chipotle," is definitely one of the lines of the year and there's even the illusion of studio camaraderie between the titan and his protegé. Schoolboy Q more than holds his own with the legend and his Blank Face album, although a bit overstuffed, is well worth a listen. 

"If you can dream it, be it," they say, which is definitely the case with DJ Khaled, who shoehorned two tracks into Hip-Hop Nation's tight playlist. Both songs were ill-defined and disjointed, using their lazy beats to support a king's ransom of guest rappers who provided their only appeal. Khaled is like Woody Allen - it seems anyone will say yes to him. As to why a genius like Kendrick Lamar feels the need to do so, perhaps the fact that nothing from his extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly (or its nearly as good companion, untitled unmastered) was played in all the time we listened has something to do with it. Maybe he knows the only way for him to stay in the commercial game is to jump on a track by a far lesser artist. 

I'm not going to say that Chance the Rapper plays the that game better than Kendrick Lamar, but his No Problem (feat. Li'l Wayne and 2 Chainz), fit the Hip-Hop Nation format brilliantly, with the addition of charm, which was lacking in much of the stuff we heard. It might be the only song from Coloring Book that does fit, but it's a canny commercial move that also happens to be a really good song.

One thing Hip-Hop Nation is good at, even in the confines of their narrowcasting, is giving new artists a spotlight. Most times we listened we heard someone up and coming, including Young M.A., whose song Ooouuu had a beat that was a cut above, foregrounding her distinctive flow and sense of humor. "This kid's going places," I told my wife the third time we heard it. Speaking of kids, I'm not sure who gave Raes Sremmurd the keys to the studio but most of their stuff sounded like cheap trap pandering and something even they won't want to listen to in six months. Give me Lil Yachty any day - he's more fun - although I did hear a better song by Raes Sremmurd in the back of a cab the other day so maybe Sirius isn't playing the best cuts. 

In general I can't stand Drake so I counted myself lucky that he wasn't getting that much play during our time in Hip-Hop Nation. This was surprising as his album Views has been sitting on the top of the charts for weeks now, despite being almost universally panned. Even more surprising is that Hype (Remix, feat. Li'l Wayne), the one Views-related track they did play, was actually good, with some welcome self-deprecation and good backing sounds - the hi-hat programming is especially brilliant - by producer Boi-1da. Maybe he had a better ghostwriter on that one...I'll just leave that there. 

I used to listen to Hot 97 and 105.9 a lot and loved those intermittent tracks announced as "Back in the dayyyyy," which would usually mean songs more than two years old. There was no such feature on Hip-Hop Nation when we were listening and thus no sense of the past. The oldest thing we heard all weekend was from 2005, when they played Hate It Or Love It and Westside Story, both songs by The Game featuring 50 Cent. These songs have both held up well and, with their rich soul samples, sounded as lush as Rachmaninov in the current attenuated context. But why two songs from the same decade-old album? The only guess I can hazard is that it has something to with the beef that started after the release of that album, which has only recently been resolved (at a strip club, no less), and this was Hip-Hop Nation's way of saying, "Glad everyone is friends again!" Don't call it a comeback, but maybe The Game and Fiddy should make a comeback as they were very complementary back in the dayyyy.

Besides the erasure of hip hop history from Hip-Hop Nation (which is about the hits, after all) there was also no social conscience. You're not going to hear any governmental takedowns from Run The Jewels or Killer Mike or any of Kendrick's thought-provoking rhymes here. The closest thing to political expression was the transgressive freedom to say whatever the fuck you want (see Kanye West, above), which was only amplified by hearing all this creative filth in whitebread Colorado. 

Hip-Hop Nation is essentially party nation and, for the most part, we enjoyed our time there. I'll plead the Fifth on whether the fact that we were visiting family and needed to blow off some steam when we were alone in the car had any effect on the pleasure we got from listening to hours of commercial hip hop. I can also neither confirm or deny that we wrote a trap anthem about taking the toll road, which is apparently something older people avoid like the plague, even when it can save 20 minutes of sitting in traffic. What happened in Colorado will stay in Colorado, but we'll always have our memories of the Rockies, the aspen trees, our beautiful nephew and his family, the pizza at Locale in Boulder and, thanks to our able tour guides Torae and DJ Suss One, Hip-Hop Nation. 

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Sunday, August 07, 2016

BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

That there is a pipeline from indie rock to modern classical has been firmly established. What is less clear is the ultimate value of the music emitting from that spigot. My suspicion is that, as time tells its tale, the pieces produced by what might be called "rock informed" composers (Missy Mazzoli, Daniel Wohl) will prove more lasting than what those rockers have created for the concert hall. Or it may just be that if I don't like your band, I'm also not going to like your string quartet.

There is an interesting tangent to this rock-classical dialogue, represented by works like the trio version of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or symphonic takes extrapolated from The Beatles' Revolution #9 or Brian Eno's Music For Airports, the last of which sucked us north up Route 8 from Stockbridge, MA to North Adams a few weeks ago. North Adams is a classic plot of small-town New England whose faded industry bequeathed us Mass MOCA, one of the most vibrant modern art venues in the northeast. 

Mass MOCA also hosts two major annual music festivals, Wilco's Solid Sound and Bang On A Can's Summer Music Festival. Wilco's event is always scheduled around the last day of school in NYC, a less than auspicious time for us to get out of town. Our reasons for missing the BOAC event are less clear-cut but let's just say that the words "Eno" and "live" in an email had my wife excited enough for her to insist I make a plan this year. It was even on my honey-do list. So I got it done, honey. 

Just to keep things simple, we treated ourselves and our daughter to dinner at Gramercy Bistro, the white-tablecloth restaurant that is right in the Mass MOCA complex. It was utterly worth it, with clever cocktails, sushi-grade tuna, and outrageous desserts providing a delicious prelude to what lay ahead. After dinner we ambled down to the building that holds the exhibition spaces, the excellent gift shop, and the performance hall, a large space ideal for any number of live events. 

Soon after we sat down, six members of the All-Stars came on stage for the first half of the show, which consisted of four pieces from their Field Recordings project, some of which were released last year on a collection of the same name. The first, by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw is brand new, however. Called Really Craft When You, the field recording element came from interviews with quilters Shaw found in the Library of Congress archives, which she set to a fascinatingly fractured impression of jazz, featuring stellar work by drummer David Cossin, cellist Ashley Bathgate, and guitarist Mark Stewart. While she would occasionally repeat a phrase from the interview, there wasn't any Scott Johnson-style melodicism going on, more of a sense of weaving/overlay between words and music. Quilting, if you will. It was a deeply engrossing, and fully successful, piece, which I hope they record soon. Until then, you can hear its world premiere here.

Even with the mandate of the field recordings project, any composer would be up against it incorporating bird song into their music, what with classic works of musical ornithology like Cantus Arcticus by the (sadly newly late) Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara or works by Olivier Messiaen, many of which are inspired by bird song, and which are among the greatest music ever written. Considering all that, Gabriella Smith did an admirable job with Panitao, which was pleasant enough but lacked staying power for me. That I forgot it almost as soon at it finished may also have something to do with what came next. 

The third piece was Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's lapidary Hz, which used beautiful black and white footage and sounds of a hydroelectric plant as its pre-recorded element. It wasn't surprising that Johannsson included inspiration from the visual realm when you consider his recent sideline composing excellent soundtracks like the gloriously doomy Sicario. Hz is like time suspended, a sound that seemed to hover at the nexus of the performers, turning this way and that for our observation, almost a drone but with more dimension. Fortunately it's included on the album because I was ready to hear it again as soon as possible. 

Would that the intermission came next. Instead we were subjected to Rene Lussier's so-not-funny Nocturne, with a field recording of his wife snoring. Not for me, but fortunately not too long, either. 

The intermission was infinitely more entertaining, as I listened in on some music students chatting in the row behind me. I held my tongue until one of them said: "I just don't know about minimalism. I love Steve Reich but Philip Glass?" I had to weigh in: "Reich beats Glass every time!" They were amused and essentially in agreement. Since music is not a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, if I had wanted to say more I might have talked up Glass's film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and Mishima, or mentioned that I've never seen Einstein on the Beach, which is apparently an essential experience. It also occurred to me later that Reich is a composer who uses minimalist techniques. Glass is simply a minimalist. Somewhere in there lies the difference. 

This discussion was an interesting thing to have inform BOAC's performance of Music For Airports, which they launched into after the stage was filled to capacity with musicians and singers. There was also a brief intro by Mark Stewart, which let us know that Eno approved of their rework but had little to do with its creation, and that because of the structure of the music we should feel free to let our minds drift more than we would if we were listening to, say, Schubert.

As soon as the music started I fell in love again with Eno's drifting soundscape, with its Satie-esque melodies that crop up now and again and overall mood of intelligent melancholy. Also, BOAC's adaptation of his electronic textures sounded uncannily right without being mere mimicry. It could be the intermission discussion influencing me, but listening to Music For Airports in this way made me recognize anew the minimalist principles behind Eno's conception. 

Naturally there is repetition as the piece was assembled from tape loops. There are even repeating cells, just as Reich might use, it's just that Eno's are so long and slow that it takes a while to see them as such. This made the music completely riveting for me as I thirsted for this arpeggio or that trill to recur. Barring a performance of Winterreise, my mind would probably drift more during a Schubert concert! Besides minimalism, Eno's ambient recordings also brush up against New Age, a relationship that came a little too close during one of the noodly clarinet interludes Evan Ziporyn composed for the last section, beautifully played here by Ken Thomson. It was only a brief lapse, however, and without lasting effect.

I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but as someone whose foundational music is rock, I'm primed to take Eno's music seriously. Even so, I'm skeptical enough of these kinds of transformations that I was holding what I heard at Mass MOCA to a very high standard. I'm happy to report that Music For Airports can withstand any scrutiny as a magnificent work of art. Is it "classical music" of even a contemporary stripe? I think the answer is somewhere between "Why not?" and "Who cares?" 

While I would love to hear how Arthur C. Danto would break down the aesthetic philosophy behind what happens when you take an artwork completely out of the context in which it was conceived, in this case a recorded work never intended for the concert hall, and rebuild it elsewhere, I think listening to the sheer beauty we heard that night is enough of a justification for BOAC's project. I would also say that while their recording of Music For Airports is lovely, it's not as essential as seeing them do it live. Get there next time and don't miss your flight. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

College Tour = Record Store, Pt. 1

So the time has come for one of my children to start looking for a college. This means lots of traveling around to visit schools and, as we all know, any college town worth its salt is going to have a record store or two. In the spirit of carpe diem, I will do my best whenever possible to incorporate a pilgrimage to a music den on these treks. So far, so good, as we did our first tour today, at the most excellent Williams College, and I was able to include a visit to Toonerville Trolley Records after lunch (and ice cream from Lickity Split, of course!).

Toonerville is a lived-in store, packed with more vinyl and CD's than could easily be reviewed in one visit. Most everything is priced between $8 and $15, with several sale sections that are cheaper and some unusual finds that are pricier. Their personal taste was evident from the get-go, with sections for Progressive Rock, Space Rock, and "Unclassifiable" right up front. The free jazz blaring from the great sound system was also a clue. 

I wandered around a little to get the feel of the place, flipping here and there, seeing what would pull me in. I eventually was moved to search very comprehensively through the jazz section, hoping at the very least to find a copy of El Chico by Chico Hamilton, which is much desired by my Off Your Radar colleague Davy Jones. No luck, Davy, but I did manage to score a very nice original pressing of John McLaughlin's Devotion. Who knew Alan Douglas had his own label? This is from 1970, when McLaughlin had just left Miles Davis but hadn't formed yet Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a transitional, but still fiery, time for him and I'm eager to hear what he cooked up with Larry Young (organ), Buddy Miles (drums), and Billy Rich (bass). 

I made my way around the store, finally ending back up front to investigate that progressive rock section. Even though it was small, there were some very intriguing items in there, including Univers-Zero's UZED from 1984, which I've actually never seen in physical form before. It was $50 but taking a picture was free - as is listening on Spotify. The same cannot be said for what I found next, a pristine copy of Listen Now!! by Phil Manzanera/801. As its from the peak of British art rock (1975-77) and Eno is on it, my hopes are high. The proprietor was surprised to see it, too - he had just sold a copy the other day and hadn't realized there was another one in stock. 

Even if you don't have college-age children there are many reasons to visit Williamstown, such as The Clark, the college's own art museum and the Theater Festival. If you have an interest in the outré - or jazz and R&B, for that matter - make sure you stop your trolley at Toonerville next time you're there.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Record Roundup: Classical Composure

While I'm not sure that the paradigm of sitting motionless and silent while teams of black-clad virtuosi play music makes sense any more, I still believe that classical and orchestral music are among humanity's great achievements. As much as I might like to blow up the performance paradigm, I am equally heartened by the vitality of the scene when it comes to exciting composers and performers who are doing exactly what they want to do. Here are a few of them. 

Errollyn Wallen - Photography This Belize-born Briton is an uncommon hybrid of composer, singer, pianist and songwriter. On this, the second album featuring her classical writing, she displays a remarkable facility with composing and arranging while - crucially - connecting to emotion and storytelling. The white-hot inevitability of her music has me sold even though I often inveigh against contemporary classical that uses essentially traditional forms. The opening Cello Concerto is a one-movement work for cello and string orchestra that is constructed with the proportionality of a master architect. The cello line is impassioned but controlled and there is evidence of a deep understanding of not only classical form, but even Baroque styles. This is history-mining of the highest order, played flawlessly by Matthew Sharp, and you will hang on every note. Hunger follows, a short piece for full orchestra that is not so much in debt to Shostakovich as channeling him. The title even implies a moral dimension, which would please him no end - but not as much as the sheer narrative excitement and clever orchestration. Photography features the string orchestra again for four movements of sheer, shimmering beauty. Wallen isn't pushing any envelopes here, just displaying fully engaged artistry, like a chef who renews a familiar dish by using the finest ingredients. 

The last piece, In Earth, may be the most original on the album, which is slightly ironic considering that it takes off on Purcell's 17th Century song When I Am Laid In Earth, sometimes known as Dido's Lament. So often has this piece been excerpted from Dido And Aeneas, Purcell's operatic masterpiece, that it is practically a second British national anthem. In a flight of fancy I had while listening to Wallen's reimagined version I even found a through-line in this sorrowful song straight to See That My Grave Is Kept Clean - and thus to the British fascination with American blues. But that's a think-piece for another day. All I'll say further is you gotta hear it - and it demands to be played on a decent sound system so you can hear every sepulchral note of Tim Harries' seismic electric bass. You won't soon forget this song, which is beautifully sung by Wallen herself, or the rest of Photography, which is certain bring more attention to this important new voice. 

Lisa Moore - The Stone People Here is someone who will delve without fear into the furthest reaches of piano music (seek out her Frederick Rzewski interpretations) and come up smiling. Her relentless curiosity and absolute commitment have served her well in assembling this album, which contains John Luther Adams' complete music for the instrument. Two of his pieces are quite demanding, but not in the way you might think, as there are no furious runs here. It's more about belief. And Moore believes. There's also Kate Moore's shamanistic Sleabh Bleagh and a memorable vignette, Orizzonte, by Missy Mazzoli, which is well worth the journey. Intriguing works by Julia Wolfe and Martin Bresnick complete a very substantial program. Maybe not for everyone, or for every mood, but you'll never hear these pieces played better. 

Michael Mizrahi - Currents If you're looking for a more meditative contemporary piano album, get up on Mizrahi's soulful collection, featuring short pieces by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke. It's lovely music that avoids New Age bathos. Let Satie rest next Sunday morning and give this a try.

Alarm Will Sound - Modernists This is a kind of "save the pieces" album for me, but what pieces! The orchestrations of Revolution #9 by The Beatles (I always knew there was music in there) and Edgard Varese's seminal Poeme Electronique are flat-out wonderful. While one might reasonably question the value of taking the electronics or tapes out of pieces famously built on them, I will only say trust me. This is fun, adventurous, and eye-opening music-making. The rest of the album, made of works by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, Augusta Read Thomas, and John Orfe, is perfectly fine but not especially exciting or distinctive. Put Revolution #9 and Poeme Electronique on a playlist with Bang On A Can's dazzling interpretation of Eno's Music For Airports for a more satisfying mix.

Cypress String Quartet - Beethoven: The Early String Quartets Random records come over the transom and sometimes I'm like "Why? Why did they send this to me? Why did they even make this?" But I put it on and, while I didn't do a full investigation, I can say that this has to be the equal of, or better than, any other version of this sublime music. The recording is close, but not too close (no creaking chairs) and the playing is light and completely free of any stuffiness. I have to say that between this and Leif Ove Andsnes' recording of Piano Concerto #2, I'm starting to have a strong preference for Beethoven's early work. The members of the Cypress obviously love this music, too, and enjoy playing it together, so why not start here if you're looking for Beethoven string quartets? P.S. They also did the Late Quartets but I haven't heard them yet.

Let me know what you think of this "short takes" format - it's a good way to keep up with the deluge!

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Tunes
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
The Inspired Viola of Melia Watras
Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor
Bach & Levit: Partita Animals

Friday, July 08, 2016

Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 2

11. Hélène Grimaud - Water Grimaud is a chance-taking pianist who has mainly applied her iconoclastic POV to basic classical repertoire. But Water is something else entirely, an eclectic collection of works spanning the centuries, from Berio and Takemitsu to Janacek and Liszt. She proves herself the master of all she attempts, playing the spaces between the notes as required by Takemitsu and Fauré, or showing great command of filling all the spaces with notes as Liszt demands. To pull it all together, Grimaud collaborated with atmospheric composer Nitin Sawhny to create brief electro-acoustic interludes, which are beautiful little sketches in sound. This is my favorite kind of classical piano album, one which makes you hear old pieces anew, and it's been go-to morning music on many a day. Invite it into your life.

12. Anthony Cheung - Dystemporal
In a perfect world, a sparkling collection of six compositions by Cheung, brilliantly performed by Talea Ensemble and Ensemble Intercontemporain, would be a major event beyond the confines of my own mind. No matter - the music speaks for itself and it is entrancing post-Boulez stuff, with uncannily perfect orchestration and a stylish melodicism that should welcome any listener. The title piece has a hint of menace and makes me think of a circus, slowed down and grown slightly threatening. Running The (Full) Gamut is a cogent piano solo (beautifully played by the composer) that is an ideal introduction to Cheung's strong sense of structure and proportion. Start there if you want to ease your way into Cheung's world and make it part of your own. Save the date of November 11th for the record release concert at National Sawdust. Maybe then Dystemporal will become the event it deserves to be.

13. Anderson Paak - Malibu I gotta tell you - I thought Dr. Dre's Compton was horrible, with even young guns like Paak being drawn into Dre's stodgy and smug conception. So I admit not having high hopes for Malibu, even though his prior album, Venice, had shown great promise. But no worries - on the sprawling Malibu Paak comes on strong as the missing link between Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar, with a little Flying Lotus in there for good measure. This is lush and luxuriant R&B with a hip hop edge, up to the minute but sounding classic all the same. Right from the first cut you feel like you're in good hands. All the guests, from BJ The Chicago Kid to Rapsody to Talib Kweli, are well-integrated, leaving no doubt as to who is in charge. Room In Here is the coziest slow jam in many a year - even The Game sounds ready to cuddle - and, lord knows, we can always use more opportunities to get close.

14. TV Girl - Who Really Cares How do I love thee, TV Girl? Let me count the ways, with your hip hop beats, bittersweet samples and melodies, and your conversational, psychologically acute lyrics, it's hard to get enough! Is it a formula? Sure, like your relationship with your best friend is a formula. And it works just as well. 

15. Skylark - Crossing Over An album of contemporary choral music about death? Let's just say this is an unlikely triumph

16. Wire - Nocturnal Koreans A friend of mine who is a least as big a Wire fan as I am didn't even want to listen to this because of that wacky title. My skepticism was more based on the fact that their last album was a bit of a snooze. Neither issue should concern you: this brief eight song blast finds the post-punk legends at the top of their game. Ironically, these are all songs that were left off the last album, which main songwriter Colin Newman now admits was too "respectful" of the band. Based on these songs, each one a sleek gem with unexpected touches, the more disrespect the better. Damned good for a band in its fourth act - long may they reign

17. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered Like the Wire album, these are all cuts that didn't fit on Lamar's last album, 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly. While I can see how they didn't fit the narrative construct of that titanic album, they are still a stunning tribute to Lamar's creative fecundity. Over expansively funky tracks he tries on a few new guises here, such as the love-man of the opening cut, or the retro-didacticism of untitled 03 05.28.13: "What did the Indian say?" It's like Reading Rainbow in some alternate universe  - and I doubt anyone but Lamar could get away with it in 2016. I'm on the edge of my seat, wondering where he'll go next. 

19. Rupert Boyd - Fantasias 2016 seems to have more than its share of "Calgon take me away" moments and this delightful travelogue works better than bath salts. 

20. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo That so many people think West is a relentless jerk is one of the artistic crimes of our age. I don't pay attention to his antics - what matters it what's on the records. Granted, Pablo had a more difficult and public birth than most albums (remember when it was going to be called Swish?), and one that would have crushed the life out of most artistic endeavors. But West powered through and got the music off his hard drive - although he's famously been tinkering with it since it came out, an impulse to which any artist can relate. 

Based on the original18 track version I have (there are now two versions on Spotify!), Pablo is his most fragmented album yet, with many songs under the three-minute mark or taking hairpin turns halfway through (I could listen to the spooky 50 second coda to FML for a lot longer). Even so, there are some "tent-pole" songs that keep the album from collapsing, starting with Ultralight Beam, the gorgeous opening cut, which embraces Kirk Franklin and Chance The Rapper in equal measure, while providing an operating principle: "You can never go too far when you can't come back home again."

He then proceeds to test that theory, dishing out some nasty, purposefully provocative stuff. Taylor Swift fans know what I'm talking about - but even Famous has a cutting edge backing track ("Swizz told me to let the beat rock" - good advice). Other standouts are the bittersweet Real Friends, the classic single No More Parties In LA (with a fiery Kendrick Lamar feature), and Fade, a haunting exploration of dying love via early 80's house. That nostalgic touch is a telling sign, as this is the first album where West seems to be looking back, as if trying to trace his path and figure out how it all got so crazy. 

Don't get me wrong - this is hardly a perfect album; there are clunky choruses, punch lines that land like concrete, and other misguided foibles. But there's something beautiful about the way West just lets it all hang out there, the good, the bad, and the nutty. There's the wonderfully tossed off a capella I Love Kanye, for example - which is probably not what you think it is. And one of my favorite moments is at the end of the reflective 30 Hours, where he's just vibing out to the smooth groove provided by Andre 3000 and Karriem Riggins - "This the bonus track...all my favorite albums got, like, bonus joints like this..." Then he gets a phone call - and takes it! "Yo, Gabe, I'm just doing an ad lib track right now, what's up?" Guy's got guts. 

So in the end, Pablo is minor masterpiece of audio collage, with enough moments of transgression, regression, and aggression to slot Kanye West - in my mind, at least - near Houellbecq, Burroughs, and even Huysmans. Not really a pop record, but one with pop celebrity as a subject - and one released into the Hadron Collider of one of the globe's most fanatical pop audiences. Can't fault Kanye for cracking a little under that kind of pressure. Kendrick Lamar would probably say he's gonna be alright and I'm inclined to agree.

Sample my Top 20 with this handy playlist and keep up with everything else I've been listening to here.

What's been making your year?

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