Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Bit Like Goodbye: Big Star's Complete Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 02, 2016

Frank Ocean Goes Deep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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.