Thursday, May 04, 2017

Goldfrapp, Silver Eye, Brooklyn Steel

Goldfrapp's Star Power
I don't know when I started reading credits. Perhaps it was when I was 11 and got Revolver by The Beatles for my birthday. "Tabla - Anil Bhagwat," it said under Love You To, a combination of syllables that was mysterious at the time and that has stuck in my mind to this day. Similarly, when searching for clues in the tiny type of the booklet for Tricky's Maxinquaye, I came across the name Alison Goldfrapp. It was not only a name that was impossible to forget, but her performance on the spectral blues of Pumpkin was equally so.

That's why I keep reading the credits: It puts my antenna up for what's next. So I was already hailing a ride to get on the sleek train that was Felt Mountain, Goldfrapp's debut from 2000, made with her partner in cyber-crime, Will Gregory. I don't think they get enough credit for delivering one of the most perfectly formed first albums of recent decades. Mixing the glam stomp of T.Rex and Bowie (yes, Gary Glitter, too), a melodic inventiveness that could be described as Mozartian, and updates on the electronic adventures of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder made for a winning combination. Goldfrapp's voice was a wonder from the start, and wonderfully human, the flesh on Gregory's chrome-plated bones. That humanity was often expressed in a mature sexuality that was frank and unattached to prosaic pop love songs. The hint of dissonant Weimar cabaret only amplified the mood, although that element has retreated on subsequent releases. 

Even so, Black Cherry and Supernature, albums two and three, only ramped up Goldfrapp's pleasure centers, with songs like Strict Machine and Ooh La La taking on an unstoppable momentum - in England, anyway. They didn't make a dent commercially this side of the pond, but it made perfect sense to me when I was flipping the channels and came across them on VH1 playing to a football field of Britons (maybe it was Glastonbury), all of whom were feeling the spirit. No doubt that was partially due to Goldfrapp's sheer star power: it was the first time I saw her stagecraft, which is simple yet extremely effective, as she rides the binary of dancing vs. theatrical movement. That split is a fair representation of the way the mechanical, analytical side of their music is put in service of physical propulsion. 

The fourth album, Seventh Tree from 2007, seemed like more of a left turn at the time than it does now. The occasional acoustic instruments (and Goldfrapp's pastoral Napoleonic cosplay on the cover) gave the impression of a folk makeover for the duo. But Gregory's musical sophistication led to these new sonic elements being put in service of their vision, rather than vice versa. In short, it was just as addictive as prior albums, if a little more inward-facing, with songs like A&E becoming canon in short order. 

Then they took a break. Gregory has a wide variety of extra-curricular pursuits, arranging and composing for soundtracks, etc., so perhaps that slowed them down. Or it could have been personal matters, but they both keep their private lives private. There was some pushback against Seventh Tree from critics and fans, but I can't imagine supreme artists like Goldfrapp being affected by such things. Either way, when they returned with Head First in 2010, it was my turn to be disappointed. Inspired by Euro-disco - a genre that may appeal more to those in proximity to, or in residence on, the continent - it sounded rather thin. "Where's the whomp?" was the question I posed to the world via Twitter. Except for Shiny & Warm (the title could be their mission statement), which was a perky take on their signature sound, I never fell for Head First. 

Besides two songs on The Singles, there was no new music until 2014, when they released Tales Of Us, which truly was a left turn. With delicate chamber arrangements by Gregory, no electronics to speak of, and Goldfrapp's most personal lyrics yet, many hailed it as a triumph. While I wanted to love it, I found it to be exquisite but surprisingly inert, at least until nearly the end when Stranger swoops in on soaring strings to rescue the album. Call me a philistine, but I just don't think gravitas is the only way to display artistic development. I'm not saying that Goldfrapp is only allowed to make kicky and hypnotic electro-dance-pop - it's just that they're so good at it!

Now, three years later, they've returned to form with Silver Eye. From the opening one-two of Anymore and Systemagic, both featuring elemental riffs played on analog synths and irresistible mid-tempo dance beats, to the tripped out finale of Ocean, there is not one wasted note or gratuitous effect. It's been twenty years since that Tricky album and Goldfrapp's voice shows no signs of time's ill effects. But it's not as though they haven't continued to develop - deeper cuts like Zodiac Black and Faux Suede Drifter display elements of dub and a new sense of effortlessness that brings to mind the Italian cosmic prog of Sensation's Fix. The rhythms are sometimes even more intricately mesmerizing, with less reliance on four-on-the-floor grooves than before. The time was right for them to come back and take their place amongst their many children like FKA Twigs, Py, Novelty Daughter, Tei Shi, and Grimes. 

I was quickly addicted to Silver Eye and when a two-night stand at Brooklyn Steel was announced I counted myself lucky to get a ticket for the Wednesday as the Thursday sold out almost instantaneously. Having recently been to the King's Theater and National Sawdust, I was also excited about taking a a look at this new venture from Bowery Presents, the last on my list of recently opened venues to check out. Located near the Graham Avenue station of the L, Brooklyn Steel seems to be just ahead of the curve of deeper Greenpoint becoming a more familiar destination. Even so, I was able to find a hip spot for dinner, Humboldt & Jackson, located on the corner of the same name. Good food, a great whiskey selection (Elk Rider Rye where have you been all my life?), and a warm room with nice service made for a fine pre-concert experience, marred only by a wretched playlist of Eighties pap that managed to include some of my least favorite songs. File under: Trends to end. 

Brooklyn Steel was only a few blocks further and was, no surprise, a repurposed factory building. ID was checked on the sidewalk and the security checkpoint was just inside the doors of the enormous vestibule. While they didn't scan my belongings, I was required to remove everything from my pockets and put it all in a plastic dish before walking through the scanner myself. I'm glad I got there early! I presented my ticket on my phone, the barcode was read, and I was finally all the way in. The double-height lobby still had that "new car smell," which may have been partly due to the mist spilling out from performance space. It also had the expected look of what we used to call "industrial chic" in the 70's, but it wasn't overdone. 

There was a solidly curated bar on the left and a merchandise area on the right, which currently only had small Goldfrapp posters on display, alongside some CD's and vinyl brought by Corbu, the opening band. The posters were nice enough for $10 but would only be available after the show. I planned to check back then to see what else was on offer. 

There was still time to explore so I climbed the stairs to the mezzanine level. I noted a door to the VIP room, guarded by a man and a combination lock, before continuing onto the balcony. There was another bar on the wall opposite the stage, which was a longer throw than I would have liked from the balcony railing. This was exacerbated by a dead center VIP section which put the beautiful people eight or ten feet closer. I don't know the measurements but it felt further than the one at Terminal 5, which holds 3,000 to Steel's 1,800. Even so, there were already clumps of people staking their claim, either sitting on the floor or leaning against the railing. The VIP was empty. 

I ordered a Bulliet Rye from the bartender who, like everyone else who worked there, was completely professional and very nice, leading me to wonder if Danny Meyer is a silent partner in Bowery Presents. Either way, somebody there cares about hospitality. I wanted to be closer to the action so I went downstairs to the floor, which was only about a quarter full. I noted another bar on the back wall and went to find a spot to await the opening act. 
Corbu opening the show
I had listened to Corbu's debut album, Crayon Soul, and found some of it to be surprisingly sophisticated and engaging, but there were also a number of tracks that felt unfocused or even generic. Still, there was something to Corbu and I was curious to see and hear how they would do on stage. The five members took the stage in matching outfits, each featuring a luminescent panel and evincing a late-sixties futurism. For their first time on a big stage they acquitted themselves fairly well, cheerfully going through their set despite the chattering audience. I can't say I was riveted but I think they made some new fans. If they're going on the whole tour with Goldfrapp, it could be a whole other story by the last night on the road. Either way, I'll be keeping an ear out for them in the future. 

After Corbu's short set their gear was broken down quickly, the lights got darker, a huge puff of purple smoke emitted from the stage, and the crowd in the now packed room pushed toward the stage, murmuring in anticipation. Cheers went up for the musicians, clad all in black and looking serious, as they took their places, and then a huge roar went up as Allison Goldfrapp emerged and moved toward the microphone. She looked fantastic, with her hair still dyed ruby red as it is on the cover of Silver Eye and wearing an ensemble that would have been merely stylish had it not been made of reflective silver fabric. She greeted the crowd and seemed genuinely moved by the long ovation. 

They started the set with Utopia and took us there, musically speaking. She was in great voice and the configuration of two keyboard players, a bassist and a drummer was ideal for Goldfrapp's sound world. Lovely Head was next and I suddenly thought: this woman probably sings coloratura in the shower - she sounded that good. The crowd was into it, but many people were more concerned with recording and observing than losing themselves in the music. Don't get me wrong - I took pictures, too, but tried to be strategic about it and put my phone away for most of the time. I wanted to dance, to let those crushingly inevitable beats move me as intended, and to be transfixed. Goldfrapp were more than holding their end up and I wanted to do my part to participate.

As they went through their set, Goldfrapp's command of the stage only grew more impressive and I felt like I was in a shamanic presence and was ready to follow her wherever she led. Anymore and Systemagic both more than held their own among classics like Train, Ride A White Horse, and others, as did other songs from Silver Eye. Even Dreaming from Head First sounded great, as did Shiny And Warm, played during the encore. The sound system throughout was excellent, highly detailed and not too loud although there was power to spare. There was a moment when the keyboard players switched to Keytars and momentarily flummoxed the audio, but the signature squelch of those once forgotten instruments was worth the glitch. 

As they went through what flowed like an expertly organized playlist, I noted that there was an interesting divide between the four musicians, one which pointed up the combination of the sensual and the mechanical in Goldfrapp's music. The keyboard player on my left and the drummer were both grooving hard, the one leaning into her bank of synths, head nodding, and the other sinking into his rhythms with the relish of a hungry man at a feast of his favorite foods. On my right, the keyboard player stood tall at her rig, executing her parts with an almost clinical detachment while the bass player was all stoic perfection. And Allison Goldfrapp stood in the middle, a locus for all these approaches and attitudes, moving with the ease of a natural star. I don't know if this split was calculated but it worked for me, blending with the brilliant lighting and the intriguing projections to make a real show. 

Brooklyn Steel proved to be a great new mid-size option for concerts, although Bowery Presents might want to work on the AC. "Are you hot or is it just me?" Goldfrapp asked on more than one occasion. It wasn't just her - it was sweltering by midway through the set and did not improve. Also, I'm not sure if Goldfrapp has an excessively tall fan base or if the stage is not quite the right height. All I can say is that I'm 6'1" and felt like I was straining to see the band from about 10 rows back. I don't remember having the same experience at Bowery Ballroom. 

The generous set, followed by a generous encore ending with an ecstatic Strict Machine, had me floating out of the room towards the exit and cool night air. A quick check of the merch booth revealed nothing more than those posters - no vinyl, CD's or t-shirts - so I kept moving, happy to note that Corbu were holding court with friends. All the way home, I basked in the glow of having seen one of the true masters of the stage. I don't know where Will Gregory was that night but he missed a hell of a concert - don't make the same mistake when Goldfrapp hits your town

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Nordic Night At National Sawdust

Nordic Affect performing Point of Departure at National Sawdust

It was unseasonably frigid last Wednesday when I headed to Williamsburg for my first visit to National Sawdust. I've had my eye on this venue when it was just a rumor and I was looking for a new job in development. While I never saw the right job for me on their listings, I was excited when they opened and have been intrigued ever since by the variety and creativity of the offerings I heard about in emails and on Facebook. I despaired as events featuring Talea Ensemble and Helga Davis - two of my favorites - went by with me unable to fit them on my calendar. But then all things converged and I was able to attend when they hosted Nordic Affect's New York City Debut. 

This avant garde chamber ensemble created one of the albums of the year with Raindamage and perhaps they also brought the chill in the air from their native Iceland. But there was a warm welcome at the unassuming door that admitted my wife and I to National Sawdust. The chic black interior was made up of interesting angles with the ticket desk on the right and a bar at the end calling you towards the door of the performance space. There is also a separate sit-down bar with a window on to North 6th Street that looks like a great place to get a drink whether music is on the agenda or not. 

We continued on into the room itself and were stunned to discover one of the most beautiful interiors in the city. It's a work of art with obliquely-angled seemingly symbolic panels covering the walls and ceiling surrounding the high stage. We sat at one of the little round tables, joining someone who was there solo. It would have been a little tight - but do-able - had a fourth person joined us. The menu promised creative cocktails and upscale bar food, which would have been even more intriguing if we weren't stuffed from dinner at Sweet Chick. I'll keep this option in mind for next time - which I hope will be soon!
National Sawdust's stunning interior
With zero fanfare, the four women of Nordic Affect came on stage and performed Clockworking, the title track from their 2015 album, accompanied by eerie footage from a 1966 film called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison. It was riveting to watch the blown-out black and white forms of the workers moving in rhythm to Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's music. The performance was completely precise but not uptight, with a relaxed joy in making music immediately evident. 

The sound at National Sawdust is so superb that I hardly gave it a thought, the clear acoustic allowing nothing to get between me and the music. This was especially commendable in the pieces that included electronics, like the title track to Raindamage, which they performed later in the evening. But first we had a new work by Hildur Guōnadóttir, Point of Departure, which asks each performer to sing long notes along with their instrument. It's a similar approach that Guōnadóttir took on 2 Circles, a work for violin solo that Nordic Affect's Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir recorded on Clockworking. The results are both meditative and mysterious, with a hint of Medieval plainchant, and a keen observer couldn't help but notice the silent interactions between the players that allowed them to pull it off perfectly. 

Next was Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's Shades of Silence, which also appeared on Clockworking. Before starting it there was a brief pause while Gudrún Óskarsdóttir prepared her harpsichord, placing various items on the strings inside. She also played the sides of the instrument, creating woody thumps, a picked out a sparkling melody from time to time. The performance made the piece seem more approachable somehow, maybe because you could observe how the various parts fit together. 

This was also true of Raindamage and Þýð, which were both performed as a trio by Stefánsdóttir along with Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir (viola) and Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello). Stefánsdóttir explained that the latter piece, composed by Úlfur Hansson, was built up out of so many layers in the studio that there would be no way to replicate it in concert without a little help - from the audience. So she divided the room into thirds and asked us to hum along with the instrument in our section. She also asked us to stand and reminded us to breathe. I don't think I was on key the entire time but when I crossed into harmony with her violin there was a sensation of belonging and inclusion. Whether being asked to help or not, the audience is part of every concert. It was also a good reminder at how much concentration it can take to play this demanding music, even as they performed it with apparent ease. 

The final work included the full quartet and another projection. Called Loom and composed by Sigfúsdóttir with visuals by Dodda Maggy, this new piece had only been performed once before, earlier in Nordic Affect's American tour. The film consists of hypnotic circular patterns, which were echoed in the music, creating a perfect bookend for the concert. It was easy to become hypnotized there in the dark as the music drew you further into the colorful animations. 

While Loom was conceived to include the film I think the music will stand on its own should Nordic Affect decide to include it on their next album, which is sure to be spectacularly fascinating either way. As I've written over their years, for a tiny country, Iceland is producing a high volume of excellent music. Rather than finding this baffling, I simply listen in wonder. I recommend you try it and see if you find yourself doing the same. 

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wordless Music Plays Barry Lyndon

 
For years, I've been getting intriguing emails from Wordless Music detailing their different projects, which always include a few concerts where they accompany a film screening with a live performance of the soundtrack. This has become a popular sideline for the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras as well, creating a new (read: younger) audience for some graying institutions. 

I was there back in 1981 when Abel Gance's monumental silent film Napoleon was restored and shown at Radio City Music Hall with a live score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. It was shattering and intense experience, and set a very high bar for this sort of thing. More recently, when we went to see Frankenstein at the United Palace Theater with an improvised soundtrack played by guitarist Gary Lucas, an event that was suboptimal in nearly every way, making me a little gun shy. Partly for that reason, while I'm often attracted to Wordless Music's concepts they tend to hover just below the line where interest becomes commitment. 

But when they announced Barry Lyndon with a live score, there was no question we would have to go. I was lucky enough to see Stanley Kubrick's masterful period piece when it opened (yes, again at Radio City Music Hall) and I was immediately enraptured. Since I was only 10 or 11, there were certainly nuances I missed, but I was enthralled by Kubrick's evocation of a slightly alien past filled with all-too-human characters. Years later, I showed it to my wife and her reaction was identical. We also became obsessed with the music, some of which I tracked down piecemeal, as the Oscar-winning soundtrack was out of print at the dawn of the CD era (it is once again, but you can listen on YouTube or buy a used copy). I finally found it on vinyl and we were able to enjoy all the music as it was assembled by Leonard Rosenman for the film. It became a soundtrack to our own lives for a while.

As this was our first Wordless Music experience, we were confronted by sticker shock: they charge top dollar ($70 - $100) for tickets. Nevertheless, we took the plunge and reserved seats. Saturday night found us driving out to Flatbush where the beautifully restored King's Theater is located. We were coming from a family gathering on Long Island, which is why we used our car for what was literally a trip down memory lane. We found Flatbush to be the same riotous neighborhood it was when we lived there over 20 years ago, still pulsing to the beat of blaring dancehall reggae and busy with street vendors, and we felt at home even though it had been a long time. 

The municipal parking lot described in the email from Wordless Music was either closed or beyond my ken, but we lucked into a space on the street. While circling we had noticed an IHOP, which suited our mood more than the jerk chicken or Dominican cuisine that can be found on every corner. The cavernous and seemingly brand new restaurant was nearly empty so service was fast and breakfast for dinner was as delicious as ever. 

As instructed, we got to the King's Theater nearly an hour early. There was a line down the block - but that was for ticket pickup and I had ours on my iPhone so we went right in (it's like EZ Pass: why doesn't everyone do it?). The website having prepared us for a security checkpoint of nearly airport-level stringency, we emptied our pockets and walked through the scanner before taking in the stunning scale and detail of the restored theater. 


There was an excited hum in the lobby as people availed themselves of the many bars scattered around, which sold not only top-shelf liquor but candy and high-end snacks, including wrap sandwiches that would have been handy if we hadn't had time for dinner. We made our way to our seats, assisted by the helpful ushers, and sat down. The theater space was exactly what the lobby promised, with whimsical caryatids and elaborate gilded decor. 


The little program book was well printed and designed, with gorgeous stills from the movie and some background information. I noted many familiar names in the orchestra and realized that Wordless was working with some of the best musicians in the city. I read the whole thing cover to cover while my wife Googled historical information on the theater, which originally opened in 1929. Before we knew it, it was 8:30 and the film hadn't started yet. The natives were getting restless, clapping in their seats, until there was an announcement around 8:45 that went something like this: "Welcome to the historic King's Theater. Due to unprecedented demand at the box office, we have to delay the start of our show as everyone gets to their seats. Please be patient." I will be more respectful of your time and say no more - except to call "bullshit" and note that the movie started a over an hour late, which is a little cruel considering it's three and a half hours long. 

As soon as Ryan McAdams, the conductor, raised his baton, I blew any annoyance away and let myself luxuriate in Kubrick's exquisite vision of Thackeray's novel. Hearing the opening chords of Handel's Saraband helped, of course, as did seeing the spectacular digital projection of the remastered film. Seeing Barry Lyndon this far removed from when it was made brought home the remarkable restraint practiced by Kubrick and his production designer Ken Adam, which kept them from making a movie that just looked like the 1970's. The candle-lit cinematography by John Alcott is second-to-none and adds intimacy to even the grandest interior shots. Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero, the costumers, are also to be commended for not going all Yves St. Laurent on the 18th century. They got a hearty round of applause at the end but I was the only person who clapped for Ken Adam - like any James Bond fan, I know that he was one of the best ever at his craft. Alcott, Adam, Soderlund and Canonero all won Oscars for their incredible work.

The performance of the music was similarly flawless and perfectly cued to the projection (the dialogue, however, was only 99.5% in sync - another minor quibble). While Rosenman's work on the soundtrack was remarkable, I would venture to say that 40 years of evolution in the performance style of 18th century music was only to the benefit of Kubrick's conception, with a dryer, less ornamental approach enhancing Thackeray's gimlet-eyed but compassionate view of Redmond Barry's triumphs and travails. The piano trio (Timo Andres, Pauline Kim Harris, and Clarice Jensen) deserves special mention - I would love to hear them perform all of Schubert's Opus 100. The Irish folk musicians jumped into the traditional music, originally played by The Chieftains, fearlessly and with both feet, and tenor Nils Neubert's vocal turn in Paisello's Cavatina was a small wonder. 

The event further proved that Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest films of all time. It is the platonic ideal for how to adapt a novel with a strong narrative voice, an Olympus that is seldom scaled and never summited, and, even with the slight mishaps, Wordless Music did it proud service. I really can't say enough good things about it - it must be seen to be believed, preferably on a big screen. So, I will gladly remain on Wordless Music's mailing list and hope that next time the whole experience is as finely calibrated as the magnificent musical performance. 


"It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
-William Makepeace Thackeray

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Boogarins Live: Parallel Play


I like to listen to music while skiing (big surprise, right?) and have found that live recordings add a wonderful extra energy as I carve my way down the slope. So the other day I was listening to Led Zeppelin play Orlando in 1971 and after a pummeling opening set they transitioned to an acoustic interlude. The taper began fumbling with the mics, probably in a effort to better capture the suddenly delicate sounds coming from the group.

Instead of being annoyed at the breaking of Zep's magical spell, I found myself connecting directly to the bootlegger's excitement and the powerful compulsion to record rock concerts that arose in the late 60's. While some tapers might have been driven by commercial concerns, I believe more of them were inspired by the idea that what happens here tonight might never happen again. 

The industry eventually recognized what was going on (and the loss of potential income) and ramped up the production of live albums, a genre which had its heyday in the great lives and double-lives of the 70's (sample an idiosyncratic selection here). There's probably a lot more that could be said about the decline of the live album since those hairy days, which is one reason I'm usually listening to bootlegs while I ski. However, one new recording has been in regular rotation since it was released in February, and it's not hard to imagine the Led Zep taper with his finger on "Record" here as well. 

I speak of Desvio Onirico by Brazilian psych band Boogarins, which may just be the first great live album of the millennium. Consisting of four long tracks recorded in 2016, each in a different location, this "dreamlike detour" demonstrates a huge leap in their approach since the first time I saw them, when, fantastic as they were, they often pushed the needle on volume and power rather than finesse. 

Infinu (Infuse), from their 2013 debut album As Plantas Que Curamopens the album with some subtly altered stage banter. Then they play the song fairly straight for about three minutes, dishing out the splashy call and response riff with aplomb, before one of them takes off on a questing guitar solo that seems to draw from inexhaustible resources of bent notes and flamethrower tonalities. At a climactic moment the song breaks down to the bass player, the crowd cheers, and it appears it might be ending. But the bass gains momentum and gradually pulls everyone back into a wild exploration, each occupying their own space on an interconnected landscape. 

Just when it seems to have nowhere else to go, it comes back to the bass, which keeps riffing as the band says their farewells: "We are Boogarins from Brazil, we hope to be back soon." As bright chords introduce a new motif for an extended coda, it dawns on the listener that the album has started with an ending, perhaps even an encore. No wonder they were in such a zone - they'd likely been playing for at least an hour already! Don't apologize for cheering along.

Tempo, originally on Manual, their second album, and recorded at Rock In Rio Lisboa, begins with an overture of spacious chords and distortion introducing a stop-and-start verse that seems full of questions. The chorus, a repeated muscular phrase played by both guitars, ramps up the tension but the real fireworks begin after the second verse, which includes the sound of a passing jet plane. Things begin to fragment, one guitar producing oscillating feedback and the other picking out notes, while the drums roll and tumble along. The chorus phrase returns, and the tempo starts to heat up. Things get loud and chaotic before a delicate version of the main riff resurfaces and they sing another verse. They play out the song by burning through multiple accelerating iterations of the chorus before coming to a dead stop - done. 

Auchma is also from Manual and "it goes long and crazy live," as they admitted on Facebook. Indeed - most of the eight minutes in this version is taken up by remarkable parallel play, with both guitarists seemingly engaged in their own pursuits but somehow still remaining in the same universe. Your ears can play a game of deciding which is the lead instrument by switching back and forth. And then a synth or maybe just an oscillator comes in like a shortwave radio, all squiggles and bleeps, and Auchma hits a new stride. If this is long and crazy, gimme more. 

The final song is an improvisation named after Manchacha Roadhouse, the club in Austin where they recorded it. Driven by a galloping shuffle on the drums, the song continues the idea of parallel play, with the two guitars and a fat electronic tone each following their own muse. About halfway through, it gets super quiet even as the tempo increases, becoming a propulsive meditation that eventually breaks apart, burning up on reentry. Instead of applauding, I can imagine the audience breathing deeply as one and nodding in the direction of their pilots before exiting into the Texan night. 

It's anybody's guess where Boogarins goes from here but I feel sure their next album will be a doozy. Watch them infuse an Austin studio with magic and and keep your eyes out for a live date near you. 

P.S. Boogarins aren't the only ones on the live album tip in 2017. Sleater Kinney fans rejoiced at the release of Live in Paris and Hiss Golden Messenger just came out with Parker's Picks Vol. 1: Live at The Parish, Austin, TX 10​/​18​/​2016, an excellent recording from their recent tour. And if you want to relive a recent concert, you may just find it at NYC Taper

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry


Where to start with Chuck Berry, dead today at the age of 90? How about his first record, Maybellene? As he told a Soul Train audience 15 years later, "it was about a car and a girl," which means it was about rock & roll. He was a hard man to love as a person, but his best songs defined the word "infectious," inducing you to move and dropping perfect little lyrical couplets into your head. He was a keen observer, especially in the early days, and wrote songs about what teenagers did and what they wished they could do. Put all the classic songs together and it becomes clear that he created an American iconography as clearly defined as that of Norman Rockwell. 



And then there is the guitar playing, a combination of jump blues and country twang that defined the instrument as THE sound of rock & roll. Each solo is a clinic, linking riffs together in various combinations, always driven by electric energy. Live, he played with casual mastery, tossing his guitar this way and that, indulging in a wild array of entertaining poses and creating another iconography, this one of movement, like the famous duck walk.

Sounds, words, sights - Berry was the full package. As John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." If you still house physical product in a collection, then your shelves are not complete without a copy of The Great Twenty-Eight, which features most of the classic songs from his early years.


While the really creative part of his career ended in around 1965, when he adapted the Liverpool sound for I Want To Be Your Driver, his last great single on Chess Records, he continued to be a live draw for nearly the rest of his life. There is the matter of My Ding-A-Ling, a puerile song that caught people's fancy at the dawn of the rock & roll revival in 1972, becoming Berry's only number one hit. It was an artistic injustice but commerce and art don't always get along, even when you're getting paid in cash. Despite the renewed interest, his tours were often slapdash affairs, with pick up bands, no rehearsals, and rote performances. His last album, 1979's Rock It, wasn't terrible - just indifferent, which may be worse.




We have Keith Richards to thank for convincing Berry to try a little harder, leading to the 1987 film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. While there are some unnecessary guests, it's filled with wonderful performances of some of Berry's greatest songs, putting a fine cap on the legend's indomitable legacy. While the arguments with Richards got a lot of attention, one of my favorite Berry moments comes at the end of the movie. While the credits roll, we see him alone in his nightclub, playing the loneliest sounds known to man on a pedal steel guitar. Was this a glimpse of his heart? As the great man himself once sang, you never can tell.

 

Postscript: In 2016, on his 90th birthday, Berry announced a new album called Chuck, to be released in 2017. According to his son, Charles Berry, Jr., "These songs cover the spectrum from hard driving rockers to soulful thought provoking time capsules of a life's work." Whatever it turns out to be, Chuck Berry will always have a place in the firmament of American music.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Velvet Underground & Nico at 50

Beyond the banana: The inner gatefold of The Velvet Underground & Nico
There was a time in the late 1970's when the first album by The Velvet Underground seemed to be more talked and read about than listened to. The radio only played Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll from their last album, Loaded, which was the easiest of their albums to find - and the most conventional. When discussing The Velvet Underground & Nico, their first album, the most common words were along the lines of "dark," "gritty," "uncompromising," even "scary." So for those of us who were freighted with all this baggage when finally dropping the needle on side one, the initial shock was how unexpectedly gentle it was.

The first song, Sunday Morning, starts with a childlike glockenspiel melody straight out of Buddy Holly's Everyday, accompanied by a sliding bass line soon joined by a viola drone and drums that were more of a hint than a rhythm track. Lou Reed enters, practically whispering: "Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side." THIS was the fearsome VU, this was Lou Reed, who taught us to walk on the wild side? Sunday Morning is an absolutely gorgeous study in optimistic melancholy - and love at first listen for me - but clearly, this legendary record was more complicated than we had been led to believe.

Musical pioneer and producer extraordinaire Brian Eno famously said that almost no one bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but that everyone who did formed their own band. This is partly why the album sounded so different than expected - after living with its influence for 15 years, with some of the resulting music pushing the envelope even further in terms noise and volume, the incredibly nuanced original was bound to take some getting used to.

Now, the second song, I'm Waiting For The Man, was more as advertised. Over a pounding two chord vamp, in an unmistakeable New York accent, Lou speak-sings a tale of meeting a drug connection on "Lexington, 125." This was a level of cool that is still, even at this late date, mostly only being attempted and approximated. In March 1967, when the album was released (on the heels of The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single), it must have sounded utterly bizarre. I grew up less than two miles away but Reed might has well have been singing about another planet. Besides Dylan, whose producer Tom Wilson worked on this album (and the follow-up, White Light/White Heat), perhaps the only preparation for what was going on here came from The Doors debut, which had come out about six months earlier, and which drew on some similar strains of dark poetry, but with a more radio-friendly sound and image.

Also like The Doors, The Velvets never turned their back entirely on the blues, which is how Jimmy Page was able to fit I'm Waiting For The Man in to the set list of The Yardbirds in their final days. Another early adopter was David Bowie, whose manager had brought a test pressing of the album back from New York. While the gestation was long, Bowie's love of the VU came out in Queen Bitch from Hunky Dory in 1972, and in the many performances of I'm Waiting For The Man (and White Light/White Heat) in the Ziggy Stardust era. The circle was finally complete when Reed joined Bowie to perform both songs at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

One thing that makes the Velvet Underground & Nico so astonishing is that the entire album was in the can and ready to go in April 1966, before The Doors album even came out. Release was delayed for nearly a year by their label, Verve Records, which was more familiar with marketing jazz and was also caught up in putting out the first album by Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention. It's a compelling mind game to imagine the album coming out in an even more innocent context. Maybe it would have made a bigger splash, like a hand grenade in a Disney film, but it's just as possible that it would have been actively suppressed rather than benignly neglected. One thing that is unquestionable, that the VU were consciously going head to head against the Summer of Love ethos. "We were pretty much appalled by what was going on on the West Coast," John Cale has said. "The hippie scene was not for us. They were scruffy, dirty people."

So how did The Velvet Underground come together to create such a unique and prescient sound? The core of the band was made up of Long Islanders Lou Reed (guitar, vocals, lyrics) and Sterling Morrison (rhythm guitar, bass, backing vocals), who had met and played music together at Syracuse University in the 1950's. Out of college and trying to make it in music as a staff songwriter and session player at Pickwick Records, Lou met Welsh violist John Cale (also bass, keyboards, backing vocals) at a recording session and they hit it off. Cale was classically trained, had written symphonies now lost to time, and had washed up in NYC after a scholarship at Tanglewood Music Center brought him to the States. When original drummer Angus Maclise quit on the eve of their first live performance, Maureen Tucker, also from Long Island and the sister of one of Morrison's roommates, was brought in on drums.

That first gig was not a success - they only performed three songs before being given the hook - but they persisted and landed a residency at a Greenwich Village club. The night they were fired from there was also the night Andy Warhol was in the audience and they were soon under his wing and providing a soundtrack to his performance art piece, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol is credited with producing the album, which seemed to consist mainly of insisting the engineers not clean anything up. After Warhol died, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs For Drella, a richly emotional exploration of their time with the pop art master, which also illuminated his involvement in the VU's early days. It seems that, besides providing the instantly iconic album cover, the other important thing Warhol did for the nascent band was model an incredible work ethic and indomitable self-belief. His example forced them to sharpen their craft and push their art further, so by the time they were in the studio their material was honed to a fine point. There is nothing on The Velvet Underground & Nico that is not meticulously planned and prepared; even the exploratory freak-outs had a roadmap.

The other element Warhol brought to the band was German "It Girl" Nico, essentially untrained as a singer (her credit on the album is "Chanteuse," which is somehow perfect), but with a spectacular look and natural charisma. Lou wrote three classic songs for her that provide crucial variety to the album and in their sensitivity belie his reputation for misogyny. Femme Fatale comes third on the album and demonstrates Reed's complete absorption of 1950's ballad style, down to the backing vocals on the chorus. Of course, in the 1950's there were no songs sung by a Teutonic ice-princess about a rapacious woman's sexual conquests - maybe Kurt Weill comes close.

The title of Femme Fatale also hints at the roots of Reeds lyrical interests - hard-boiled American literature by the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. Incorporating their dark themes of transgression, obsession and betrayal into a rock and roll context is perhaps Reed's greatest inspiration and most revolutionary act. He has often said that he wanted to write the great American novel as an album and, besides Bob Dylan, no one else did as much to singlehandedly expand the vocabulary of rock music than Lou Reed.

The fourth song on the album is a perfect example. Venus In Furs was based on the 19th century novella of the same name by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the word "masochism" is derived), which explored themes of sexual dominance and submission. Surely, Reed must have thought, nearly 100 years after Venus In Furs was published, the world of rock and roll was ready for lyrics like "Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather/Shiny leather in the dark/Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you/Strike dear mistress, and cure his heart." Not quite ready, Lou, but thank you for forcing the issue!

Run Run Run, which follows, is blues-based bit of Dylanesque rock, mainly distinguished by Reed's distortion drenched six string shamanism, which, like Roger McGuinn's work on Eight Miles High (1966), was likely based on John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" sax solos. All Tomorrow's Parties comes next, a spooky and hypnotic vehicle for Nico, which presages post-punk explorations by Siouxsie & The Banshees and Nick Cave's first band, The Birthday Party.

As great as the album is up to this point, it can seem like mere preamble when it comes to the next song, Heroin, which starts side two. This novelistic look into the mechanism of addiction, and the mindset of an addict, doesn't just realize Reed's literary ambitions - it propels him into the company of his heroes. The fact that it's set to mesmerizing and (yes) melodic music only makes the band's achievement here more impressive. Such is the power of Heroin that not only were other musicians absorbing its lessons, but authors, too - like Denis Johnson, who titled his breakout book Jesus' Son (1992) after a line from the song.

Sequencing There She Goes Again after Heroin was a wise choice. It's a charming, if somewhat slight song that's probably the closest thing to an actual pop song on the album, and it gives listeners a chance to catch their breath. The final Nico song, I'll Be Your Mirror, is the first of Reed's indelible ballads, and one of the most poetic love songs ever written. So much of Reed's achievement over the years is based in acceptance and compassion, so neatly embodied in the lyrics to this song. For example: "When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you're twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/Cause I see you." Nico's restrained delivery is perfect, and, matched by the band's delicate accompaniment of guitars, bass and tambourine, demonstrates what can be accomplished when convention is set aside to pursue artistic truth.

The last two songs, Black Angel's Death Song and European Son, are examples of the VU at their most avant garde, with the former being the reason for their dismissal from the club after the concert Warhol witnessed. Lou's delivery and stream of consciousness lyrics are direct descendants of Dylan's work, but he goes a little further, spouting nonsense syllables for part of the song. European Son is truly psychedelic music, an attempt to alter consciousness rather than describing a state of altered consciousness, as most psychedelic songs do. The full band receives songwriting credit and it is a bit freeform but moves along and doesn't overstay its welcome. Its complete title is European Son to Delmore Schwartz, name-checking another hero, the poet who wrote "In dreams begin responsibilities" and mentored Reed in college. When European Son ends in a nasty haze of amplifier noise, there is a distinct sense that something has happened, which could be said for the whole experience of listening to the album.

If The Velvet Underground & Nico had been the only album they recorded, The Velvet Underground's place in the music firmament would have been entirely secure. It is hard indeed to imagine how bands and performers like The Stooges (Cale produced their first album), Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Suicide, Television, The Ramones, Joy Division, The Feelies, The Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and many others would have even existed, much less gone on to influence so many others on their own, without the example The Velvet Underground provided on this record, which is well worth celebrating 50 years later.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage


There's something about this album, the second by the Icelandic chamber ensemble Nordic Affect, that made me collapse a little, a kind of swoon almost, even into that word: raindamage. It evoked for me not something that would lead to a call to your insurance company, but the image of a leaf, bedraggled by rain drops but still clinging to a branch, the last one there. Or pounding sheets of winter rain seen through a picture window, moving across a field, one stalk of growth bent double and vibrating from the impact, the rest standing tall. A childhood memory from the Pyrénées also comes to mind, of watching a massive storm cover the valley below, lightning doubling itself in huge solar reflectors. It's that kind of record, one to send you spinning within yourself.

Raindamage is also the first piece on the album, a composition by Valgeir Siguròsson for violin, viola, cello and electronics, which perfectly combines the physicality of the plucked and bowed strings with the abstraction of the synthesized sounds. It's brief but epic, which can also be said of the other Siguròsson piece, Antigravity, which is solely electronic and descends into a space most wondrous dark.

Two other composers are included, Ùlfur Hansson and Hlynur Aòils Vilmarsson, and in each case they've composed one work for chamber instruments and one for electronics. The combinations of sounds in all cases evoke the interaction between nature's creations and those assembled by man, a gnarled vine ensnaring a power cable. [:n:] by Vilmarsson features the full complement of Nordics - the three strings and harpsichord - and seems to ask a series of unanswered questions, limning them with shimmering harmonics. Vilmarsson's electronic piece, NOA::EMS, hearkens back to the test lab sounds of pioneers like Manny Ghent and Ilhan Mimaroglu, without seeming at all experimental. It's a portrait of sound, in sound.

Hansson, who also created the wonderful White Mountain album in 2013, adds voices to his acoustic composition, Þýð, to spine-tingling effect. He also gets even more physical with the string instruments, gathering them all up into violent skirls of sound - you can feel the horsehair bow catching on the strings. Remember to breathe while listening. The playing by Halla Steinunn Stefásdóttir (violin), Gudrún Hrund Hardadóttir (viola), and Hanna Loftsdóttir, is almost frighteningly assured here, as it is throughout. Harpischordist Gudrún Óskarsdóttir is also excellent. Skin Continuum, Hansson's electronic work, folds an Uchwa Daiko drum into its soundscape, ratcheting up the simmering tension. Then it ends, as all pieces of music must, but it will last in your memory.

You will be left wanting more in any case, so head back to their gorgeous 2015 release, Clockworking, or catch them on their first U.S. tour. Maybe I'll see you at National Sawdust on April 19th!

Note: The word "raindamage" apparently comes from a "poetic fantasia" by Angela Rawlings called A Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists - worth investigating!