Sunday, November 23, 2014

Power Pop To The People

Alex Chilton holds on in Memphis

Let's get a few things out of the way. Like many people, I discovered Big Star retroactively, following the trail of breadcrumbs left by The Replacements. I'd heard of them, of course, often mentioned in the same breath as the Flamin' Groovies, but never heard a note - it wasn't easy to find their stuff for quite some time. When I did hear it, I connected with it immediately. Remembering Alex Chilton's voice on The Letter by The Boxtops, I kept thinking, "This is that guy?" Number One Record and Radio City are both classic albums and Third (Sister Lovers) is pretty fantastic, although fragmented. I also like a lot of I Am The Cosmos, the posthumously released album by Chris Bell, who was Chilton's main foil in the early days of Big Star.

On the other hand, I have often been confounded by Alex Chilton's post-Big Star career. While there are a few good songs (Like Flies On Sherbet, Bangkok), much of it is so shambolic or wrong-headed as to seem not only disrespectful of his fans but of his own talents. He also made a point of disparaging his achievement in Big Star, and the group in general, which bugged me. Nothing he said or played got in the way of my enjoyment, though - Big Star is in the firmament and poisoned arrows from any source can't knock them down.

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald stated that there were no second acts in American lives, Big Star sure proved him wrong when a one-off concert in Columbia, MO in 1993 kick-started a revival of the band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010. An album of the concert was released that same year and was a delightful surprise. Featuring Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens along with keepers-of-the-flame Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies on guitar and bass, it was a spirited and short set of well-chosen Big Star songs plus two covers. While there are some tentative moments (Stringfellow calls it a "delightfully fragile show"), there are a lot of fine details as well and in no way did it shame the legacy of the group. I listened to it quite a bit at the time and still put it on from time to time. I especially liked that they covered Baby Strange, one of my favorite T. Rex B-sides - it's always good to find a kindred spirit.

Part of the joy of Columbia was the simple thrill of hearing these great songs take shape in front of an audience, after so many years of hearing the studio versions. In 2009, we were afforded an even more spectacular opportunity to do so, with the release of the stunning Keep An Eye On The Sky box set, which included a complete recording of a 1973 concert at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis. This is a trio version of the band, with Chilton and Stephens joined by Andy Hummel on bass. It sounds like there are about 10 people in the audience but the band is on fire, with Chilton ripping off leads, chords and complex figures, while Hummel holds down the anchor and Stephens drives the bus, heavy on the ride cymbal. Chilton is in fine voice, too, able to handle the range from soulful to raucous. They were already performing Baby Strange back then, as well as Todd Rundgren's silly Slut, which reappeared in 1993. They nodded to a third hero by including Hot Burrito #2 off the first album by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

There were also earlier releases of live material from 1974, with Chilton showing all too clearly the ravages of the lifestyle that is well-represented on the third album, but between Columbia and Lafayette you have a nice representation of Big Star on stage. Turns out there was more in the vaults, however, and not just audio but film of a complete show from 1994, now seeing the light of day on Omnivore Recordings under the name Live In Memphis. They played in front of family and friends (including Chris Bell's parents) at the New Daisy in what was apparently a warmly received homecoming. 

I admit to being slightIy skeptical of this whole enterprise and when I read that Chilton's former bodyguard (there's a tale) had shot the footage my doubts increased. It seems I needn't have worried. While I haven't seen the whole film, the clip of The Ballad Of El Goodo is beautifully shot, with multiple cameras, and nicely edited as well. In fact, watching this one song has me pretty convinced that this the ideal way to experience Live In Memphis. Watching Chilton's face, still boyish but a bit more lived in, as he puts his all into the song's imprecations to "hold on" is a window into both where the song came from and what it meant to him that night in Memphis after all he had been through. Based on that one song, I am more than eager to see the full thing, which is after all the only professionally made document of a complete concert by Big Star in any form.

That's not to say that the music on its own is to be avoided. At this point, the Posie-fied version of Big Star had played quite a bit in the wake of the 1993 concert, including shows in Tokyo and London, and had gelled more in the process. The set is longer than a year earlier, and looser, with everyone having a lot of fun, bantering with each other and the audience. The uptempo songs drive harder, with a sense of abandon that is very engaging. Looser also means sloppier, with Chilton up to some of his old tricks, entering verses and choruses off the beat and practically daring Auer and Stringfellow to keep up with his off-kilter guitar. 

There are more covers, including 35 seconds of Springsteen's Fire and an ill-advised "playful" take on Girl From Ipanema, which overstays its welcome even at under two minutes. Still, that's really the only cringe-worthy moment. The sound is good enough, although I go back and forth about whether dialing down the drums would be helpful or if their big sound adds to the live feel. Overall, Live In Memphis will be a balm to the ears and especially the eyes of fans of the band and Chilton. Kudos to the team at Omnivore for so lovingly rescuing this material from obscurity. 

Big Star had many descendants in addition to The Replacements, most famously and productively the great Wilco. Jellyfish, the early 90's group helmed by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner (both now strutting their stuff in Beck's astonishing road band), is sometimes included in that cadre. While that power pop sound is definitely in their DNA, they probably take as much from The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Cheap Trick and Paul McCartney's solo work. Now Omnivore (busy, much?) has prepared reissues of both Jellyfish albums in expanded editions, each featuring a wealth of bonus tracks - demos, live takes, one-offs - to come out on January 20th, 2015.

I never really took to Jellyfish and it's been at least a decade since I listened to Bellybutton. My impression is still basically the same, that here is a group of extremely talented craftsmen with a pretty broad knowledge of music doing exactly what they want to do. It's just not for me. Part of it is the overly brittle sound they chose for their music - I would just like a little more warmth and sense of interaction between the players. But in the end, my opinion doesn't matter much. Jellyfish has their fans and they will be over the moon with Omnivore's typically excellent archival work.

The first disc of the Bellybutton set includes the original album plus ten live cuts from three venues they hit while touring the album. They sound sleek on four songs from the Roxy, charming at the Hard Rock in San Francisco (performing McCartney's Jet, Falkner offers "That's all we know!" as the song ends), and positively storming on the big stage of Wembley arena in London. The second disc is all demos, nine from Bellybutton, one from the second album, five that were never finished, and a cover of Donovan's Season Of The Witch. All of this material will be available as a separate digital download called The Bellybutton Demos. 

For demos, most of these songs are nearly fully realized, with multiple instruments and a modicum of production. These aren't your "bash it out on an acoustic just to get the song on tape" kind of early takes, so they don't provide all that much insight into their writing process, except to point out that working in the studio was an essential part of it. Of the unreleased songs, Queen Of The U.S.A. had serious potential - all they would need to do is hack out the silly sound effects from the bridge and this thing could've been a hit. Always Be My Girl is tuneful and fast-paced - with a different drum approach, it could have been a With The Beatles outtake. Let This Dream Never End is almost pure lite-FM R&B, replete with Greg Phillinganes keyboards and Paul Jackson rhythm guitar. Michael Jackson, Elton John, hell, even Whitney Houston might have found success with it. Season Of The Witch is one of the great groove songs of all time, but Jellyfish never quite seem to find their place in it - completists will be thrilled, as they will be with the rest of this definitive reissue.

Since the demise of Jellyfish, Falkner and Manning have always been busy and in 2000 they teamed up with drummer/composer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air, numerous soundtracks, including Lost In Translation) to form TV Eyes. They made one album in 2006, which found release in Japan only, played three concerts, and promptly moved on. Looking for something different from what Falkner calls "the macho 'alternative' post-grunge fallout," they took inspiration from Gang Of Four and other post-punk bands, as well as early electronica like Kraftwerk, Japan and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army. The broad swaths of guitar also bring to mind the work of Bill Nelson, especially his Red Noise album, which proved old prog-rockers could get angular, too

Now, thanks once more to Omnivore, this material is no longer for collectors only, and it's worth investigating. While none of the songs equal their influences at their best, each one is fully realized and built-out with all number of layered keyboards, processed drums, disengaged vocals and cool sonic touches. Falkner, Manning and Reitzell are all pros in the studio and it shows, with Reitzell showing his hand in an genuinely haunting re-mix of Time's Up, one of the bonus tracks. What's also clear is that their affection for their sources includes a little well-placed amusement - they know Cars is a funny song as well as a great one - and although they steer clear of parody, they're not afraid of a little pastiche. So check out TV Eyes for some 
expertly assembled machine-tooled post-punk paranoia, especially if you don't mind a dash of fun in the recipe.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Information For 16 Strings

Like the binary system, string quartets can convey seemingly infinite amounts of information using a simple and easily replicable structure. Two recent releases from Brooklyn Rider and the Juilliard String Quartet highlight some of those possibilities.

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, featuring 13 new compositions commissioned by the group, comes swathed in layers of information before you even get to the music. The inspiration for the collection, the liner notes explain, comes from Der Blaue Rieter Almanach, the compilation of music, art and essays published in 1912 by The Blue Rider, an art collective based in Munich and centering around painter Wassily Kandinsky. Brooklyn Rider's name is an homage to the German artists and the inspiration for their Almanac comes from the way Kandinsky and company allowed different forms of art to inform each other. In fact, the spark for the Munich visionaries was provided by Kandinsky's Impression III, a quite wonderful painting itself a response to a performance of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in Munich in 1911.

To carry through the idea, Brooklyn Rider asked the mostly young composers (at 63, Bill Frissell is the oldest) to compose a new work based somehow on the work of an artist they admired. Muses include everyone from William Faulkner to Keith Haring and from James Brown to Mierle Lederman Ukeles, the Artist in Residence at the Department of Sanitation. The composers themselves come from all over the map, including two of indie rock's finest drummers, Glenn Kotche and Greg Saunier, a few notable jazz musicians, such as Vijay Iyer, Frissell, and Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus and a few singer-songwriters. All of the writers for the album are people who perform as well as compose, which could be one of the factors that gives the Almanac its extraordinary energy.

Right from the start, with Necessary Henry! by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli, we are treated to a surge of churning power from the quartet. With inspiration from composer Henry Threadgill, Koheli works in all sorts of jazzy swoops and glides, along with percussive thwacks before driving the piece to furious conclusion of unison playing. It's a knockout. Maintenance Music follows, by Dana Lyn and inspired by Ukeles, brooding but tense for the first few minutes, then turning to playful skittery interactions between the players. That's the other thing: all of these works are short, with the longest nearing nine minutes and shortest under three, making for a nicely balanced listening experience. In fact, it may be the perfect shuffle play string quartet album. And you don't have to engage with the liner notes to enjoy it, although this is one case where they do make it more fun.

Padma Newsome of The Clogs portrays the Australian desert through the eyes of Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira in Simpson's Gap, using sonorities that Aaron Copland would have found well suited to the American prairies. It's a broadly tuneful work that hides layers of pain and struggle beneath the surface. The Haring Escape by sax player Daniel Cords (no relation to BR's own Nicholas Cords) is suitably cartoonish in depicting the liberation of Haring's populist drawings from the stuffy environs of private collections and galleries, bringing to mind the ingenious musical engines of Raymond Scott. Aoife O'Donovan, a singer-songwriter, took her inspiration from William Faulkner for Show Me and conjures up song-like passages infused with the melodies of the American South. It's pure charm. 

My first reaction to Dig The Say, Iyer's James Brown homage was "oy," based on the clunky title alone. But damn if he hasn't gone and done it, convincingly translating James Brown's methods to the world of the string quartet. It's simply delightful - and slightly hilarious - to hear cellist Eric Jacobsen expertly play a Bootsy Collins bass line. As Iyer says, Brown's "...groove-based music features complex polyphony, expressive virtuosity, and a ritual-like intensity," all successfully captured here. Dig it. Iyer's description of JB's music could also be used for Greg Saunier's work with Sean Lennon in their improvisatory duo, Mystical Weapons. However, his work here is one of the more mediative pieces on the Almanac. Titled simply Quartet, Parts One & Two and inspired by Christian Wolff, a composer closely associated with John Cage, it features long, plangent lines and such clarity that it's almost as if the quartet was reduced by half. 

Saunier's work segues nicely into Morris Dance (for choreographer Mark Morris) by Iverson, which, as you would expect, features some parodic moments, most notably an oh-so-deep cello cadenza. The piece ends with a little singing, which is a nice touch and sets up the next piece, Exit, by BR's violinist Colin Jacobsen, which features Shara Wordon on vocals. He gets away with two muses, using words from Kandinsky poems while drawing on the "inquisitive nature" of David Byrne. It's a tuneful, circular work with as much singing and clapping as string playing. I've always enjoyed Jacobsen's contributions to BR's repertoire, and Exit, part of a song cycle called Chalk And Soot, is a striking new direction for him.

Five-Legged Cat by Venezuelan performer Gonzalo Grau, is almost as funky as Dig The Say. Besides the merengue rhythms of his homeland, Grau also looks to Chick Corea for "colors, textures and accents," and his work has all those things in spades, as well as being wonderfully entertaining and atmospheric. Christina Courtin, another young singer-songwriter who also plays violin, is quite self-deprecating about Tralala, seemingly almost regretful about choosing Stravinsky as her muse. Not to worry - there's a lot to be said for Tralala's folky playfulness and episodic nature. She works some dance rhythms in as well, which I'm sure old Igor would appreciate. 

Glenn Kotche, who's already having a bang up year, contributes Ping Pong Fumble Thaw. Electronic composer Jens Massel provides the catalyst and the title, with the piece moving quickly through four movements. Not surprisingly, it's a very percussive string ensemble we hear, with plenty of pizzicato and woody sounds. As with many of the Almanac's compositions, you should not restrain any toe-tapping while enjoying Kotche's miniature symphony. 

Finally, we come to Bill Frissell's entry, John Steinbeck, which grew out of the reams of music he composed for a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival. It eventually became the album Big Sur and was composed there, not far from the settings for many of Steinbeck's stories. If your familiar with Frissel's guitar-scapes on from his own records or on albums for John Zorn's Naked City or many of Hal Willner's productions (check out Marianne Faithfull's Strange Weather), you will find the ambient textures of his brief quartet familiar. It serves as a contemplative coda to all that came before, ending what is certainly Brooklyn Rider's greatest accomplishment so far. Unlike a five-legged cat, they don't put a foot wrong on The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. 

None of the composers on the Brooklyn Rider album (or its members, for that matter) were even born in 1946 when the Juilliard String Quartet was founded. Naturally, it has replaced all of its members since then while maintaining a tradition of deep involvement with the music of its time with a strong focus on American works, while also bringing its own perspective to the classical repertoire. While there are likely several JSQ recordings that can be referred to as landmarks, perhaps none more so than the 1991 release of what was at that time Elliott Carter's complete string quartets, Nos. 1-4.

Well, as It happened, the irrepressible Carter wrote a fifth quartet, publishing it in 1995. Considering that he was productive until his death in 2012, just a few weeks short of his 104th birthday, I'm somewhat surprised it was only one more! Now the JSQ has reissued those four extraordinary performances along with a new recording of String Quartet No. 5. Don't toss out the older release too quickly, however: it included a definitive recording (with Christopher Oldfather on piano) of Carter's not insubstantial Duo for Violin & Piano, which was composed between the 3rd and 4th quartets and has now become somewhat of a digital orphan. In any case, of the first four quartets let me just say that if you've been following the string quartet's journey from Mozart and Haydn through Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich, you need to know these works. It may in fact be the only American cycle that can hold its own in that rarified bunch. 

Carter certainly did not let the side down with the 5th, delivering a fragmented and playful 12 movement piece that also displays the absolute limits of counterpoint and how interacting individuals can make up a whole. Still a landmark recording, it's almost as if Mt. Rushmore grew a fifth head - not something that happens every day and well worth celebrating.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 2: Tweedy & Son

When last we met the members of Wilco, nearly every member of the venerable band had released their own albums - everyone except for main singer and songwriter, Jeff Tweedy. Now his record is here, a double album called Sukierae, made in collaboration with his son Spencer under the name Tweedy. For years, Wilco watchers have been hearing about Spencer's drum prowess, and even hearing it on the last Mavis Staples album produced by Jeff, or on recordings by The Blisters, the OK indie rock band Spencer founded. But now we have the full parental endorsement, 20 songs, several of them featuring just father and son.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Spencer can play. Just 18 years old, he is a tuned-in, versatile rock drummer who easily handles anything his dad throws at him, from the punky blast of opening track Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood, to the tense art-rock of Diamond Light Pt. 1, or the chugging folk-rock of Low Key. It would be unfair to compare him to Glenn Kotche, Wilco's groundbreaking percussionist, but he's not missed in this context.

But as integral as Spencer is to Sukierae, make no mistake: Jeff is in the driver's seat, writing all the songs, singing, playing multiple instruments, producing, arranging and recording nearly everything at the Wilco loft in Chicago. The end result is as convincing a display of his casual mastery as we're likely to get. Despite sometimes sounding tossed off, almost all the songs resonate emotionally and contain well-turned hooks and tangy little touches that keep you coming back. I could see an argument for paring Sukierae down to a single disc, but if you listen in a sitting (try it, you might like it), there's an accretive effect of all the verses, choruses and bridges stacking up, seemingly generated from an unending fount of creativity. You might find yourself thinking American song is in a healthy place with this Tweedy guy.

His deep engagement with the history of his medium is reflected in that first song, with its jokey reference to the classic song sung by The Animals, Nina Simone, and so many others, and Hazel, the penultimate track, which calls back to an under-appreciated Dylan song of the same name from the Planet Waves album. Also, the sequencing of the record can't help but bring to mind the White Album, with its whipsaw shifts of mood and its variety of approaches. The sonic environment of Sukierae is more limited than the classic Beatles album, but Tweedy shows a lot of imagination in how he chooses to present each song.

Like The Beatles, Jeff Tweedy also knows when a little help can be useful, deploying Scott McCaughey (who played with R.E.M. for more than 15 years and currently heads The Baseball Project) on several tracks, mostly on piano, and calling in Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (who perform as Lucius) to sweeten things with their background vocals on nearly half the songs. I especially love their work on sardonic rocker I'll Sing It, where they channel a little of that Flo & Eddie sound from Electric Warrior. Their Lucius bandmate Dan Molad is also heard on two tracks, but credited differently for some reason. There are three songs with Jeff on his own, with Fake Fur Coat an excellent example of the genre of "strumming and picking folk songs with lyrics that blend the surreal with the quotidian." It is, after all, Dylan's world and we can hardly blame Jeff Tweedy for living in it.

Although the lyrics can be oblique at times, there is a general sense of vulnerability, and even fragility at times. Nobody likes to cry in front of their kids, but there is absolutely no sense that Jeff is holding back to protect Spencer. While Jeff has had his rock star troubles, it seems like things turned out pretty well on the home front, and that feeling of familial cohesion is one of the external delights of the album. It should also be mentioned that father and son share at least one of the emotional cruxes of the album: wife and mother Susan Tweedy's diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, for which she is currently being treated. Sukierae (pronounced "sookee-ray") is one of her family nicknames, making the album partly a tribute to her - and it's one she and all the Tweedies can be proud of.

Coming soon: Wilco returns with two career-spanning collections, celebrating 20 years of excellence and exploration. The first, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, will be a box set of rarities and unreleased material, and the second, What's Your 20?, will feature that number of "essential" songs from their eight studio albums.


Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bach & Levit: Partita Animals

You walk in a room, your view of the gilt-framed paintings obscured by the crowd, some your friends, and others your enemies. The air is a haze of smoke, redolent of wine, beer, perfumes, powders and sweat. As you step further into the space, the gorgeous young thing at the harpsichord begins to play something insipid, hoping to impress the vapid young men gathered around the instrument. Why must this always happen? Why is it not possible to make an entrance accompanied by something worthy of your presence?

Pure conjecture, of course, but who's to say this sort of experience wasn't the impetus for J.S. Bach to come up with the spidery opening chord and dramatic beginning for his Partita No. 2? All I can say is that when I hear it, I sit up in my chair, a master of all I survey. However, not every performance of Partita No. 2 has that effect on me. As part of my preparation for reviewing Igor Levit's new recording of Bach's Partitas Nos. 1-6 I decided to focus on one of the six pieces and get to know it really well. So I made a playlist of more than a dozen complete recordings of No. 2, with a little lagniappe from the Swingle Singers's Jazz Sebastian Bach album thrown in for good measure.

As I listened, I started forming very definite opinions on how this music is best played. Naturally, like anything else open to interpretation, beauty will be in the ear of the beholder, but I do think that Bach should not be easy listening. Put another way, Bach is known for writing a large body of utile music, such as to accompany church services or festivals, or to aid in the teaching of music itself. However, I don't think he ever put quill to parchment with the hope of creating wallpaper. In fact, we know that Bach was using the Partitas to establish himself as a composer of keyboard works, being known mainly for his choral works at the time he published the first one. Making a strong statement would definitely be on his list of priorities with these works.

The first recording on my list was by the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and my first reaction was, "Wow, but no - too weird. Haunted house!" Gradually, however, I began to come around to it, and the harpsichord in general, embracing the weirdness. I've always found that instrument a little tough to take but for this project I wanted to really give it a chance. After all, the harpsichord was Bach's axe of choice back then. He completed the book of Partitas in 1730 and didn't hear a piano that he liked until 1747, when he took on the sideline of selling the newfangled keyboards for pioneering manufacturer Gottfried Silbermann.

Admittedly, the Landowska recording was a little rough and ready, being from the 30's and slightly distorted. In addition to Landowska, I also grabbed Ton Koopman's recording, which was certainly beautiful if a little straight laced in comparison. Finally I discovered Christiane Jaccottet's brilliant performance, which seems to find the perfect balance between sheer beauty, drama and strangeness all tied together with a slightly searching quality as if playing the music in the process of discovery. The recording is close but not clinical, revealing some of the mechanical noises of her keyboard, but not distracting lay so. Listening to the three harpsichord recordings in my playlist pointed put a key interpretive choice: whether to spread or roll out that opening chord or to play the notes in unison. Landowska and Jaccottet both opt for the former and Koopman for the latter.

I do not know enough about it to understand why rolling the chord is optional, but I can say that I like it better in general, whether on piano or harpsichord. While there were some recordings I took to that didn't spread the chord, it's just a bolder statement and seems to put the partita on a different footing. So I had my harpsichord breakthrough thanks to this process, although listening to it's brittle, metallic sound for extended periods still causes fatigue. But maybe that's as it should be. Are we supposed to sit and listen to all six partitas at once, with the endings running into the beginnings in unending stream of Baroque melodies? There's that wallpaper question again.

Speaking of which, as I compiled my list I came across the best-selling release by Simone Dinnerstein called Something Almost Being Said, which has music by both Bach and Schubert. While I have enjoyed some of her work, especially Night, her collaboration with Tift Merritt, I just can't tolerate her soft-edged, diffuse approach in this music. While I'm not an original instruments snob, I do think there is a point where a player can seem to be ignoring everything a composer ever hoped for their work. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," L.P. Hartley wrote and I don't think its a bad thing to allow some of that foreign-ness to exist in very old music. Something almost being said? I think not. I think Bach was actually saying something, and we should respect him enough to let the music do the talking.

For a great recording on modern piano, Glenn Gould is still the man. Stylish and dynamic, he manages to put a personal stamp on it while maintaining a clarity in the counterpoint that keeps you anchored. And you should hear what he does with that opening, putting a little hesitation between the first note and the rest of the chord, making a new sequence. While known as a bit of an eccentric, Gould had nothing on Julius Katchen's entry which is full of blurred passages, odd dynamics and rushed tempos. I think Katchen took more liberties than the Swingle Singers. Call it sloppy if you will, but the sense of ownership is captivating. Another fine recording is by Eldar Djangirov, known mostly for jazzy crossover stuff but whose stunning precision and expert pedal work do perhaps the best job of translating the qualities of the harpsichord to the modern instrument. Style to spare, too.

My playlist also includes David Korevaar, Martha Argerich, Andras Schiff, Roger Woodward, Lydia Gorstein, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, all of which have something to recommend them, as well as one smoothed out movement on harpsichord by Hermann Stinders, which does not. As for the Swingle Singers, their take is kind of charming and while I wouldn't want a whole album of it, makes for a nice palate cleanser.

So how does Levit do, shouldering his way into a crowded subway car of fleet-fingered, often imperious masters of the keyboard? Born in Russia in 1987, Levit has been playing since the age of three but waited until last year to make his recorded debut, first as a soloist on a live recording of Eric Tanguy's In Terra Pace, and then on his own album of late piano sonatas by Beethoven. The Tanguy album didn't make much of a splash (the music isn't terribly distinctive) but the Beethoven album was greeted rapturously. While I'm not going to investigate fully, from what I can hear he more than holds his own in another packed field, displaying astonishing technical assurance, lyricism and drama. His Beethoven sings.

He brings many of those same qualities to his Bach, playing the partitas in a manner that is unapologetically modern while nodding to Baroque style. His tempos may be more measured than some yet his well-defined rhythmic sense keeps things moving, acknowledging the parlor dances that give some of the movements their structure. He makes the most of the piano's dynamic range while avoiding an excess of romanticism. That said, a clue to his approach lies in a Schumann quote in the liner notes where he says, referring to Bach, "... I myself confess my sins to this lofty figure every day, while seeking to purify and strengthen myself through him." Levit has some of this interiority as well, giving the sense of a personal journey through the partitas, rather than just a display of virtuosity.

Throughout, Levit opts more for beauty than for some of the alien aspects of the Baroque approach, but without any sense of soft-pedaling (literally or figuratively) the work of a genius from almost three centuries ago. It's almost a high wire act on Levit's part, balancing all of these elements, and his sense of command is such that you never worry about him falling. This is an excellent recording and confirms Levit's place at the front ranks of today's keyboard artists. He makes a number of subtle, intelligent decisions and executes them with flair. If I would like to see him use more imagination when it comes to record-making I also understand his need to get some major repertoire on the books at this stage of his career. In the end, while Jaccottet might have the edge with Bach himself, I don't doubt that Levit would also get a nod of approval from the old master as he entered that imagined party seeking friends and recognition.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

David Bowie Is...In Chicago

When I fell for David Bowie back in 1981, I fell hard. While I had always prided myself somewhat on maintaining enough critical distance from musicians to avoid sheer fandom, Bowie fascinated me like no other artist and I went willingly down the rabbit hole of his career. The catalyst had been the casual purchase of the ChangesTwoBowie compilation as a holiday gift for my brother. I think it may have been only the second Bowie album in the house, believe it or not, with the other being Changes One.

Perhaps because it covered a longer period than the first collection, it gradually dawned on me how varied his work was. "All of these songs are so different," I remember thinking, " but they're all so good. What's going on here?" Game, set, match to Bowie as I began haunting my favorite used record stores for decent pressings of his catalog as the RCA "Nice Price" reissues used flimsy vinyl and indifferent color correction on the sleeves. In short order I had acquired them all and was busy absorbing song after song.

Interestingly, Bowie himself was basically absent from the world stage as I was losing myself in his past. The end of his RCA contract had coincided with the disastrous realization that he had essentially been turned into his own employee. Having almost nothing financially to show for creating one of the greatest multi-album runs in recorded history he had retreated to lick his wounds and plot his next steps. They turned out to steps. I stayed up late one night to hear the New York premiere of Let's Dance and it was instantly obvious that something had changed. It was a great song, fun to dance to, but the Nile Rodgers production gleamed just a bit too brightly and the seams in the songwriting were a little too obvious.

I didn't buy the album (it would be six years before I bought anything by him (I still stand by the first Tin Machine album, by the way)) but its success meant ubiquity for Bowie and I eagerly snatched up every magazine with him on the cover and paid a scalper $50, which felt like a fortune, to see him at Madison Square Garden on the Serious Moonlight tour. He was as astonishing a performer as I had hoped and I was thrilled when Stevie Ray Vaughn was replaced by Earl Slick, who was a connection, along with Carlos Alomar (ever-present on rhythm guitar) to the RCA years. How the heck was Vaughn going to play Heroes, anyway?

Many articles on Bowie start out remarking on how hard it can be to be a Bowie fan, what with his sometimes wayward career after Scary Monsters. But that's old news. Despite the 10 year hiatus between Reality and The Next Day, that makes three great albums in a row, with the latter being one of his strongest records period. And there seems to be more on the way: BBC 6 just premiered his new song, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), a striking collaboration with jazz composer Maria Schneider, that will appear on an upcoming retrospective, cleverly titled Nothing Has Changed.

All of this is to say that when it was announced that David Bowie Is, the comprehensive exhibition created by the Victoria and Albert Museum was touching down only in Chicago, I knew I had to get there. Thanks to my lovely and supportive wife, a plan was hatched to make a family trip of it and spend Columbus Day weekend in the Windy City. I knew I was in the right place when I took a random run near our hotel and came across a huge Aladdin Sane mural on the side of the museum. Above it was a sign: David Bowie Is Watching.

After a day of sightseeing on Saturday, we were among the first people at the Museum Of Contemporary Art on Sunday with our 10:00 AM timed tickets. The facade of the ultra-modern building hinted at the glories within, with another mural and Bowie's lyrics on the stairs to the entrance. When we told the greeter we were from New York, she said to our kids, "Wow. Do you know how cool your parents are right now?" I was beginning to really like this place! We checked our bags, ascended to the third floor and walked through the empty queue to pick up our headsets and enter the show.

Somewhere I had read that the average stay inside the exhibition was 90 minutes. I was in there for four hours, so deeply immersed it felt like mere minutes. Alongside the traditional vitrines and frames, the show uses cutting-edge display techniques like huge 3D shadow boxes with internal projections, which serve to bring various periods of his and career to life. Also, wearing the headphones, which delivered content triggered by where you stood in each gallery, had the effect of putting Bowie in your head, spoken words and music colonizing your consciousness.

Bowie saved everything so each room contained more than one astonishing artifact, from the document that made his name change official, to his coke spoon from the Thin White Duke era, to the ring of keys from his years in Berlin. And that's not even mentioning the creative memoribilia - hand-written song lyrics, sketched out vocal arrangements, storyboards for an abandoned film called Hunger City, instruments from guitars to keyboards. Then there are the costumes, some for performance and others for street wear. Along with the evidence of his inspirations - Anthony Newley, Lindsay Kemp, Ballard and Burroughs, etc. - this all has the effect of connecting you deeply with his process. Then when you turn a corner and are confronted with his product, say the performance of Starman on Top of the Pops, the impact is enormous (my wife watched that one four or five times, marveling at the bromance between Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson).

I'm not sure there has ever been a museum show that so explicitly lays out the path of an artist from preparation to experimentation to the creation of a new original. For Bowie, periods of research, drawing on seemingly disparate materials, are followed by an assembling of collaborators, often a familiar group with a wild card or two, and then working in the studio with lightning speed to capture a song before it ossifies. The way Bowie works is tailor-made for an exhibition like this and, having long found his methods instructive for the way an artist can operate, seeing it all in front of me was thrilling.

The rooms were laid out mostly chronologically, with strategic intrusions from other eras when it made artistic sense. Gradually it dawns on you that, even with his chameleonic ways, there are constants: the canny combination of abstraction and specificity in his lyrics, the draw of dance music, the clothing that reshapes his figure, the appeal of squalling guitars. He often stuck with collaborators like Ronson, Eno, Tony Visconti, or the designer Freddie Burretti, as long as possible, not casually casting people aside to get a quick infusion of new blood, and occasionally returning to people years later. One flaw in the show, although an understandable one, is that a neophyte could walk out thinking more about Bowie's extensive work with Alexander McQueen just because his name is on the wall, and have no idea who Mike Garson, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray are, just to mention a few of the musicians who were crucial to many of his best records and performances.

Speaking of performances, throughout the show, there is the occasional throb of what almost sounds like a live concert, noticeable even while wearing the headphones. This makes you wonder what you're missing and pulls you through the galleries. I was able to resist the temptation to dash ahead and let myself get thoroughly absorbed in everything. I knew I was getting closer when I got to the room where a well-edited loop of Bowie's film and theater work was running and the throb got louder. From his first appearance in the 1967 short The Boy, he was perfect for the camera, magnetic and controlled. By the time of The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Elephant man, he had learned how to invest his seemingly natural charisma with pathos and had become a great actor. Unfortunately absent is his spectacular turn from Extras, singing Pathetic Little Fat Man to Ricky Gervais, which proved comedy was also in his grasp. Based on the evidence in this room, there probably is more he could do with his acting talents if he so chose.

Finally it was time to enter the room where the noise was coming from. This turned out to be a larger than life showcase of some representative performances which were projected on three walls. Some of these were heard through the headphones but others were blasted into the open air, almost replicating the collective experience of being at the show. There was a stonking take on Jean Genie with Mick Ronson playing to rule the world - I almost applauded when it ended - and three versions of Heroes playing at the same time. One was part of The Concert for New York City, which was put on in the wake of 9/11 to raise funds for the rescuers. Gradually everyone in the room gravitated to that wall, mesmerized by Bowie's obviously heartfelt performance.

As the camera panned over the audience, filled with police officers and firemen in uniform and their families, I couldn't help but be reminded of all the emotions surrounding the city in those terrible days. And then I thought about how remarkable it was that this artist extraordinaire, who made the world safe for freaks and outsiders of every stripe, was also able to provide succor and uplift with grace and generosity to people who really needed it. Just one more incredible moment in the life and work of the man born David Robert Haywood Jones, someone who has enriched my musical, creative and emotional life immeasurably. As I left the show to puruse the extensive gift shop, I was filled with a sense of gratitude for his work and for the dedication of the curators who gave me this opportunity to engage with it on an entirely new plane.

David Bowie Is will go down in history as one of the greatest museum shows of all time. If you can't get there, I highly recommend ordering the beautifully executed catalog, which features essays by Camille Paglia and Jon Savage, among others, along with a generous selection of photographs. When you get your copy, dial up either this career-spanning mix or the original track list of ChangesTwoBowie, put on your own headphones, and dive in to the world of David Bowie. May your time there be as rewarding as mine was.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Working In Nashville

I had to go to Nashville for a nonprofit tech conference. Everything was taking place in the Gaylord Opryland, an outsized human-scale terrarium about 10 miles from the bright lights of Broadway. Since Nashville is Music City and I thought I might have a little time to explore what that meant, I started doing some research a couple of weeks before the trip. Serendipity called when I got an email from Noisetrade offering a free sampler of Nashville indie from Deer Head Music.

I shared it on Twitter and when Deer Head responded, I asked them for some venue suggestions. They came back with The Basement, Exit In, Mercy Lounge, the 5 Spot and the Stone Fox. None of these places are on Broadway, not that I knew the significance of that before I went down there. I Googled each venue, looking for promising bands that I might be able to catch in my limited free time. Mercy Lounge led me to The High Watt, which was featuring a four-act lineup on the Monday, headlined by Wild Ponies. I dialed up their 2013 album Things That Used To Shine and was greeted with the moody and menacing Make You Mine. Opening with a Link Wray-sized chord, this is a concise bit of noir, with spidery guitar from Doug Williams limning his wife Telisha's threats, sung in a crystal clear voice with a bit of twang. The second song, The Truth Is, has Telisha showing a more vulnerable side and is also a winner. Trigger moves at a gallop, with some fine fiddling, intricate picking and Doug chiming in on the chorus.

The whole album is pretty darn good, although I have a definite preference for the cuts that steer the furthest from country and where Doug unleashes the meanest guitar lines. So I had a plan. Strangely enough, no one else at the conference was feeling adventurous and preferred to either stay in the climate-controlled Gaylord, check out the Grand Ole Opry itself or wander the confines of Broadway. The shuttle dropped me off outside The Ryman. I walked down to Broadway and immediately saw why some people call the place Nashvegas. The neon was unrelenting, although some of it was very cool, and there was music blaring from windows and doors on two levels. Nothing I heard was very inspiring and it struck me that the performers in the tourist traps lining the street were little more than props, part of the experience visitors expected but not something you would travel to see, or remember much of afterwards.

I was seeking something more. But before going off the beaten path, I decided to stop into Ernest Tubb's record store, which has been there since the 50's. They had a deep selection of country, including some nice box sets from Bear Family. In the back was a little museum, with cutouts of Tubb, Hank, Dolly and Elvis. They also had Pete Drake's "talking" pedal steel, as heard on Lay Lady Lay and 1,000's of other songs. Since I was there, I picked up Lucinda Williams's fine new album along with an Earl Bostic CD from the bargain bin.

Stepping back onto the sidewalk, I gave myself over to Apple Maps for direction and Hiss Golden Messenger's extraordinary Lateness Of Dancers for musical fuel. As I walked, the sky to the south lit up regularly with cinematic bursts of lightning, lending a sense of occasion to my journey. After about a mile, I found myself at Cannery Row, an historic building that now houses three music venues (at least) and what looked like a gallery. What it didn't have was a restaurant so after paying my $3.00 ("Steep for Nashville on a Monday night," the doorman informed me) and getting my hand stamped at The High Watt, I went off in search of Peg Leg Porker for some barbeque. God, was that good, and perfectly matched by their house-bottled bourbon and a glass of George Dickel Barrel Select for good measure. But I digress.

Taylor Sorenson & friend
By the time I finished licking my fingers and got back to The High Watt, I had missed Lauryn Peacock's tuneful and thoughtful folk-rock but up next was Taylor Sorenson of The Trigger Code, a Nashville band with a big sound that was recently heard on the inaugural season of HBO's True Detective. It's been a couple of years since their last album, however, and Sorenson was here to workshop some new songs with another guitarist. Although he introduced them as acoustic songs, both guys were plugged in and ready to rock. Which they did, with intensity, Sorenson's boot hitting the stage on the choruses. While still ringing out with bold dramatic flourishes, the new songs sounded a bit more personal than their stuff on record, which can strain a little too much for the universal. It's a tough balance, but Sorenson has the grit and passion to find it.

Catherine Ashby
After a short break, Catherine Ashby took the stage, tall and striking in a long white tunic, her red hair offset by glittery eye shadow. Her 2012 album King Of My Sky has a beautiful warmth, reminiscent of Nick Drake and other English singer-songwriters. The songs are well-constructed and can be deeply touching, offering solace and delivering on that promise. Recently she's transplanted herself to our side of the pond, recording her latest EP, Tennessee Tracks, in Nashville, and as soon as she started singing I Tweeted "where Laurel Canyon meets the English Hills," trying to capture the influences she was so perfectly weaving.

The EP was produced by Lorna Flowers, like Ashby an English songwriter drawn to Nashville. In the 10 years since she arrived, she became a nurturing force among Nashville musicians. Unfortunately, that tight-knit community said goodbye to Flowers earlier this year when she succumbed to cancer. She did a beautiful job with Ashby's songs, adding just enough detail to the songs with pedal steel and strings, a restrained rhythm section and a rich sound. Tennessee Tracks is a worthy addition to her legacy and an excellent introduction to Ashby's talent. Performing with just another guitarist, Ashby was a confident and charming advocate for her songs and sang beautifully. I couldn't help but think what those people packing the bars of Broadway were missing, as there were only 20 or 30 people at The High Watt.

Wild Ponies
The crowd might have been small but it was very enthusiastic, and never more so as when Wild Ponies finally took the stage. They came hot out of the gate, Doug Williams spraying shards from his telecaster and Telisha Williams dwarfed by her bass but fully in command. I didn't catch the drummer's name but she was right there along with them, pushing her small kit to the limit. This is what I had been hoping to hear from them and it was fantastic. While the whole set didn't hit me as hard that's only because I like their electric side best. There is no doubt that they can do whatever they choose to do, and in a big way. Doug and Telisha are clearly a force to be reckoned with and when Telisha remarked that this was "an unusual Wild Ponies show because nobody has died yet," I admit to being slightly relieved that she was only talking about singing a murder ballad, which they then went on to do with aplomb

This was Wild Ponies last Nashville concert until mid-December as they are heading out on an extensive tour, including nearly a dozen dates in the UK. I wouldn't be surprised if they inspired a few more musicians to get on a plane and explore Music City. On my way out of The High Watt, I chatted with Doug and he was as friendly as his guitar playing is fierce. Catherine Ashby was also charming, signing my copy of Tennesee Tracks with a flourish. I would've hung out longer but I had to catch the last bus to the Gaylord.

As Hiss Golden Messenger sung me back to my hotel room, I felt that I had drank deeply from a rich source of music. I won't say I found the "real Nashville" on Cannery Row as the rhinestone and neon glitz is just as much a part of that as the simple verities of great singing, songwriting and playing. I do feel I found a corner of town that fed me and kept me satisfied even in the weeks since I returned to NYC - and I'm not just talking about Peg Leg's ribs. Next year's conference has already been scheduled in Austin. I've heard you can catch a little music there, too.

Here's a playlist of some of what I listened to and heard in Nashville.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bandcamp Bump: Debby Schwartz, Eddie Dixon, Etc.

It remains to be seen if Bandcamp will save the music business, but one thing is certain: there's a whole lot of music to be found there. It has a lower bar to entry than iTunes or Spotify, giving up and comers an opportunity to make their stuff available for streaming and download. They've also recently added "fan accounts" as a way to build community on the platform. Signing up gives listeners a chance to follow artists and other fans to keep up with what's going on and share information. They also have an app, which lets you listen to anything you've bought on all your devices and discover new music through a customized feed. That low bar to entry does mean that you have to wade through a lot of lo-fi, derivative and frankly amateur stuff to find the gems, but they are there to be found.

Last year, I touted the quirky pleasures of Historian and the rock classicism of Journalism - yes I did make a crack about underused graduate degrees - and I still return to both of them. The latter's latest is not on Bandcamp, but easy to track down on Soundcloud, another bottomless well of sounds. Isadora's EP - a Top 20 record from 2013 - is still available to download for $7 along with their stunning new track, Come On Back. [Correction: Journalism's 1324 EP Recently popped up on Bandcamp]

Finding the good music on Bandcamp isn't always easy. Fortunately, there are guides like Lizzie Plaugic, who picks a few of her discoveries and shares them every Thursday via Letters From Bandcamp on the CMJ site. While I've found a few things thanks to her digging (like the naive charms of Palmz) I'm going to share a couple of my own favorites that came to me via quite different methods.

Debby Schwartz is an old college friend of mine who is a music lifer. She's best known for her time in The Aquanettas, an all-female power-pop band that disbanded in 1995 after some rough treatment from the industry - an old story, except they were on an indie label. Talk about bad luck. Their 1990 album, Love With The Proper Stranger, has aged well - give it a spin on Spotify. So when I heard from Debbie that she had a new EP out, Satan You Brought Me Down, I headed immediately to Bandcamp to check it out.

Debby's contralto has grown deeper and richer in the intervening years but retains that little quaver of vulnerability that makes it so easy to connect with her singing. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and working a seam of Americana that is slightly hypnotic and emotionally resonant, she's come up with five winning songs here. Hypnotic turns to haunting on All To Become Somebody, thanks to Pat Gubler's expert work on the hurdy gurdy and a melody that seems as old as time itself. Both the EP and upcoming album were produced by former Voidoid Ivan Julian with a sensitivity to Debbie's voice and live yet dimensional sound. Flashing back to seeing The Aquanettas at Brooklyn Woodstock, I never could have imagined that Debby would be making her strongest music 30 years later. Believe it.

People are coming out of the woodwork at an increasing rate to see if AnEarful will feature their music. Eddie Dixon is one such person and I was glad he did, especially after a couple of listens to what turned out to be his fourth album. Yes, he's been around awhile - besides his own music, Dixon has lent his multi-instrumental talents to a wide variety of music, from Ralph "Soul" Jackson to rapper Serengeti.
Bump Key takes you on a tour through some fractured Americana, with echoes of Wilco, Tom Waits and Michael Chapman. More Bugs Than Birds and In The Morning When It's Late are standouts but the capper is closing track, You Are Not A War. With a groove that gets under your skin and some louche cabaret piano, this song sticks with you. Dixon's dry voice and wry sensibility anchor the project and the production is well thought out but feels organic. Dixon is on to something - climb aboard.

Now, pardon me while I check out Eddie's three other albums - on Bandcamp, of course.