Sunday, December 04, 2016

David Bowie's Black Year

"That was patrol; this is the war."
- David Bowie, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore

Even before we knew what kind of a year this was going to be, David Bowie's death cast a long shadow. That's partly why I've waited this long to offer some critical thoughts on Blackstar, his last album, and can now include additional words on the other Bowie-related releases that 2016 has given us.


There was a lot of well-deserved astonishment, from both insiders and fans, about how Bowie had orchestrated his end. And it is true that if anyone's demise could be seen has part of an overall, lifelong art project, it would be Bowie's. But two facts also remain: Blackstar will live far beyond those elevated thoughts - which give it a hell of an emotional obstacle course to run in the minds of concerned listeners - and Bowie wasn't quite done. There are rumors of unfinished songs, including one called When Things Go Bad, and possibly an album's worth of sketches,  even beyond the three tracks just released as part of the original cast recording of Lazarus, the musical theater piece that also occupied Bowie during his last years. 

Part of the fun of being a Bowie fan, especially later in his career, is finding connections, both sonic and thematic, between albums that sound wildly different on their faces. Blackstar is no exception and after a few listens I began tracing its relationship to Station To Station (which seems to grow in stature every year), 1. Outside, and Earthling. The fact that those three albums were made over a 20 year period shows just how deep a well Bowie was drawing from when he started Blackstar. 

Station To Station is interesting to think about in this context because of the slight echo of beginning with a long, multi-part song based on mysterious quasi-religious themes, then following up with shorter songs and ending with a gorgeous ballad. The title tracks of both albums also trade in myth-making, with the first describing the Bowie-narrator as the Thin White Duke and the second having Bowie state, in heavily processed vocals: "I'm a Blackstar." If so inclined, you can also play to your heart's content with the yin-yang, matter and antimatter of the opposing white and black imagery. 

Station To Station also represents the solidifying of one of Bowie's great rhythm sections, Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), George Murray (bass), and Dennis Davis (drums), who would remain a unit over four more crucial albums and two world tours. Alomar was from the world of funk, soul, and dance music and Murray and Davis were both experienced in jazz and funk. While the three of them, along with everyone else involved, were obviously huge contributors to the resulting music, a quick look at their post-Bowie careers leaves no doubt as to who was in charge. But it also points out that Blackstar was not the first time that he pulled in musicians from outside of rock to fill out his palette of musical colors.

While 1. Outside was made with old friends Brian Eno (producer, electronics), Reeves Gabrels (guitar) and Mike Garson (piano), Sterling Campbell (drums), Carlos Alomar, etc., the album was actually assembled from 20-minute jams (known as the Leon Suites), which sound like nothing else in Bowie's canon. Some of the jazzier moments embedded in those long, dark pieces somewhat presage the sound of Blackstar. On the final album, the song A Small Plot Of Land gives a little taste of what I'm talking about. In fact, Blackstar collaborator Donny McCaslin released his own version of Plot this past October - more on that below.

On Blackstar, in addition to trusty producer Tony Visconti, Bowie worked with an all-new group of musicians, the avant jazz quintet led by sax wizard McCaslin, a group that has been making a name for themselves over the last few years. While we'll never know if this collaboration would have continued beyond Blackstar, it's notable that, rather than picking and choosing musicians like the master bricoleur he was, Bowie here corralled what was already a tight unit to bring his demos to life. This could have been a matter of expedience: rather than giving a group time to gel, he could hit the ground running. 

He was ready to go when they hit the studio in any case. While he never talked about it (mainly because he stopped giving interviews) remarks by Visconti and other collaborators from The Next Day, his 2013 comeback album, and Blackstar, have revealed that Bowie had become a master home-recorder over the years. From bass lines to drum patterns to guitar parts, Bowie often came to the studio with highly detailed schematics mapping out how he wanted the song to be arranged and performed. In the case of Lazarus, the extraordinary third song on Blackstar, Visconti and crew determined there was no way to replicate the gloriously twisted fuzzy-sharp guitar sound Bowie concocted for the demo so they just extracted it whole cloth and laid it into the final take - which was the second take (read it and weep, studio perfectionists). Visconti also deserves credit for his expertise not only in capturing the heft of the band's sound but also in the way he structured things, each verse building on the last to dramatic and tantalizing effect. 

Reading between the lines of drummer Mark Giuliana's track-by-track breakdown, Bowie's drum programming still showed the influence of drum'n'bass, the short-lived genre that he made such effective use of on Earthling. Nothing sounds dated on Blackstar, however, which is a tribute to Giuliani's effectiveness as an interpreter of Bowie's rhythmic ideas and his ability to always remains in the energy of the moment.

That energy is furious on Blackstar, too, which is one of the "livest" albums Bowie ever made - indeed, one of the most spontaneous of the year. Working with jazz guys is probably part of that, yes, but is also down to Bowie's unbelievable vitality. Listen to the intake of breath that precedes the slamming rhythms of the second song, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, and the shrieks and whoops during the ending - it's as if Bowie is giving us his life force preserved in wax, or a vial of his breath to hang around your neck. If you can't take in some of that lifeforce and feel the thrill of it, I recommend you pay closer attention - we should all try to live that vividly.

Listening closely will also allow you to enjoy the lyrics, which are probably Bowie's most outrageous since Cracked Actor in 1973. From the "When she punched  me like a dude," to mentions of Bowie's cock, this is what creative freedom sounds like. The fact that he's resonating with a bloody and oft-bowdlerized 17th century play about incest is also an argument for feeding your art by being well read. You can get an idea of Bowie's home recording skills by seeking out the original version of this song, released as a b-side in 2014. It's fascinating and stranger sounding - but it lacks the athleticism of the Blackstar version, where Bowie rides the band like he's breaking in a wild stallion. 

Pity leads straight into the brooding introduction to Lazarus, which already sounds like a standard at this point. Obviously, the opening lines ("Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now) make expert use of Bazinaian doubling*, but they're also perfectly crafted, damned compelling songwriting, each line given a polished weight. That continues throughout the song, too, wonderfully accompanied by the band's dynamic performance. I expect this song will be covered often - but good luck with that guitar sound!

Like Pity, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), is a re-recording of a song which was first released in 2014. The earlier version was a one-off made with the Maria Schneider big band and was the first hint that Bowie was on his way somewhere new. The second version is stripped down and tense, Bowie's plangent tenor floating over the drum'n'bass rhythms, Ben Monder's barbed wire guitar, and Jason Lindner's cloudy keyboards. McCaslin adds atmospheric woodwinds, lending a touch of dread to the lyrics, which depict a deadly breakup - this one might have made Iman nervous. There's a rattling energy throughout, driven by Giuliana and bassist Tim Lefebvre, and it ends, boldly, in a glorious onslaught of feedback and amplifier buzz, dropping us from dreams back into the room where Bowie & Co. made the song. 

Bowie used to open his shows with Wendy Carlos's switched-on Beethoven from Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable film of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Turns out he was a lifelong fan, singing some of the lyrics of Girl Loves Me in Nadsat, Burgess's futuristic Russian-based slang. Part of the lyrics are also in Polari (or Piccadilly Palare, as Morrissey would have it), an impenetrable slang used by the actors, showmen sailors and the gay underground in Britain. This enigmatic move is a perfect foil for the queasy stomp of a song, but it's not arbitrary. While it's hard to know what exactly what he's singing about at all times, the sense of keeping extraordinary pain at bay, is crystal clear. Then you get to the the crowning line in standard English, which may in fact deserve the title of lyric of the year: "Where the fuck did Monday go?"

I don't know about you, but I've been quoting it since the first time I heard it, starting with January 11th when I learned of Bowie's death. Great artists are in tune with the unheard pulse of the world so it's no surprise that Bowie bequeathed us the perfect phrase for this benighted year when it had barely even begun. It's also further evidence of how vertiginously Bowie rode the razor's edge of the personal vs. the universal, with that same phrase possibly referring to days lost to chemo fog and painkillers. An artist of Bowie's genius never did anything arbitrarily - all the linguistic play in Girl Loves Me sets up layers of distance between his pen and the pain he was writing about. Another reported influence on Blackstar was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, from which I believe Bowie took a license to be as lyrically dense as he wanted, likely delighting in the thought of his words being parsed alongside Lamar's on Genius.

Bowie was also a master of restraint, never adding something to a song "just because." Having McCaslin lay back and provide only atmosphere on both Sue and Girl Loves Me was a wise choice. This avoids "sax fatigue," which is my only caveat about Blackstar. McCaslin has monster technique and a distinctive sound but the structure of his solos grows a little predictable over the course of the album, each climb to the upper register existing more on its own plane rather than in the organic matter of the song. 

In any case, McCaslin outdoes himself on the plaintive Dollar Days, soulfully sketching alongside the opening chords, playing a perfect solo, and almost duetting with Bowie over the out-chorus. This was the only song Bowie didn't demo, playing it to the group on an acoustic guitar (hope they recorded that) before they developed the version on the album. The lyrics are superficially simple, getting the most out of the double meaning of lines like "I'm dying to (too)" and "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to, it's nothing to me," which could refer to both death metaphorically and the fact that he'll never see his country of birth again. Bowie's singing is almost unbearably plangent, seeming to float by without effort.

A touch of Bowie's drum machine program segues into I Can't Give Everything Away, soon blanketed by Jason Lindner's warm analog synths. A wailing harmonica calls back to A New Career In A New Town, an instrumental from Low, perhaps a reference to the fact that whatever happened next, Bowie was already walking untrodden ground. Monder's guitar at the end of the song also ties back to Robert Fripp's work on earlier songs like It's No Game (Part 1) and Heroes, enhancing the reflective quality of the song. As a young man, Bowie often described himself as feeling distant from human feeling, a robot or a bit of an iceman, and this song could partly be seen as an apology for all the withholding he did in his life, hiding under layers of masks and personas, his "own little corporation of characters," as he said in 1975. In the second verse he sings "Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent," which could be an invitation to look back over his career and reinterpret any refusal as an embrace.

I continue to believe that Bowie was essentially not a confessional songwriter, throwing his lot in with the transformational power of art to filter the world and create something outside of yourself. Bowie was probably all too familiar with the "strange feeling" Tim Buckley talked about in a song from 1969 (when they were both tangle-haired folkies), which "won't let go" and "happens every time I give you more than what I have." Even so, there is a directness of emotion on the last two songs of Blackstar that feels brave and new. Not only did he know not much time was left for him, he also hadn't given an interview or performed in public for a decade or more. Maybe knowing he wouldn't be obligated to talk to anyone about these songs freed him up to be a little more exposed.

All art is illusion, however, and in the end the deceptive simplicity of Dollar Days and I Can't Give Everything Away demonstrate a master at work, guiding us on a journey of self-exploration as mind-expanding as his previous journeys into the cosmos. "I want to be an impact on myself," he once said, "I'd much rather take chances than stay safe." Bowie takes many chances on Blackstar, not least on the opaque title track, which is art-rock at its artiest. Even with the poppy middle section, the song never quite becomes familiar. It's black hole deep, with literary and religious references we'll be examining for years. The video is equally compelling, as is the one for Lazarus, both of which showed Bowie at full strength as a visual and performing artist. It's all par for the course for Bowie's final statement, where he brilliantly wields new tools for maximum impact on all of us, if not on himself - that, we'll never know. Some things should always remain a mystery.

*This is from Andre Bazin's theory of film, where information about an actor that's external to the performance informs how we experience that performance. I wrote more about this in my review of The Next Day.

Beyond Blackstar

Bowie's busy last years included the creation of Lazarus, an Off-Broadway musical based both on his back catalog and the character he played in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Although the show goes on in London, the New York run sold out in seconds so I can't comment on the the project as a theatrical experience. But now we have the original cast recording, which was recorded near the end of the staging in New York - and on the same day the cast heard about Bowie's death. That fact, with its faint whiff of special pleading is not enough to save the album, which for the most part does not stand on its own.

While there are some good ideas, such as the bluesy touch arranger Henry Hey gives to Lazarus, there's almost nothing added to any of the songs. Occasionally there is much detracted, as on the rhythmically wayward and emotionally inconsistent version of Changes, sung by Cristin Milioti, or the uncomprehending assay of Life On Mars? by Sophia Anne Caruso, who also sounds totally out of her depth in This Is Not America and No Plan. Some of the recent songs hold up better, like Where Are We Now?, Dirty Boys, Love Is Lost and Valentine's Day. The last three are sung by Michael Esper, who has a nice, unaffected style and seems to be connecting with the words.

Michael C. Hall (who displayed impressive iceman tendencies himself on Dexter) shows real potential as a singer, with a lot of range and power. But he has trouble maintaining a throughline in these complex songs, often starting in one place and switching styles without good reason. As an actor, he's a good singer, but you never forget that he's acting, which was one of Bowie's great tricks. For example, was Bowie acting when he yelled "Shut up!" at Robert Fripp at the end of It's No Game (Part 1)? Likely yes, but he was acting in the moment; on this new version, Hall also yells "Shut up!" but he's acting out a moment - and that makes all the difference. What had been a thrilling in Bowie's version becomes slightly cringeworthy here.

As a playlist, Lazarus is an interesting prism through which to view Bowie's catalog, blending several songs from The Next Day with classics and slightly less-known songs like This Is Not America, which was a one-off collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny for the movie The Falcon and the Snowman in 1985 and the great Absolute Beginners, another film song from 1986. However, without a synopsis in the booklet, there's no clue as to why they picked these songs or the sequence, or why the album includes a bizarrely edited version of the original recording of Sound and Vision, which is profoundly unsatisfying without context.

The best track is Charlie Pollock's take on The Man Who Sold The World, which finally enshrines the haunting electronica version of the song Bowie developed in the 90's (Hey takes credit for the arrangement - oy). It's Pollock's only solo and he is completely convincing, creating one of the best Bowie covers in recent memory. I can also praise the overall musicianship, which is extremely good especially when you consider the breadth of territory they cover (still: Lazarus 1, guitarists 0).

One thing I don't appreciate is the mercenary approach the Bowie camp took in marketing Lazarus, making purchase the bar to entry to hearing the three other new songs Bowie wrote for the play, which he recorded with the Blackstar crew during the album sessions. Fortunately, I can say that they are more than worth it. No Plan is yet another tremendous ballad, with astonishing singing from Bowie - it's one of his best performances since Wild Is The Wind, maintaining the melody's tension even at the slow tempo. It has a touch of exoticism, with lyrics a son of the silent age or Major Tom himself would love: "Here, there's no music here/I'm lost in streams of sound/Here, am I nowhere now?/No plan."

Killing A Little Time is a brutal prog rocker, Bowie's grim vocal supported by a pummeling bassline, gnarly guitar and modal horns from McCaslin. "I'm falling, man," Bowie sings in the chorus, "I'm choking, man, I'm fading, man, just killing a little time." Time better watch its back. When I Met You is slightly more minor than those two songs, reminiscent of songs like Dancing Out In Space from The Next Day. Either way, it's a fun, well-constructed song, and the musicians show off their pop skills in a committed, energetic performance. If you're like me, you'll create your own deluxe edition of Blackstar by adding these three songs to a playlist with the original album. As for the rest of Lazarus, you're on your own.

Speaking of mercenary, it's hard to imagine the man himself approving of the release of Bowie Legacy a standard-form retrospective that is completely outshone by Nothing Has Changed, the two or three disc reverse-chronology that Bowie himself authorized in 2014 and which included songs from the unreleased Toy project as well as material going back to 1964. The biggest selling point they could come up with is a "2016 Mix" of Life On Mars by original producer Ken Scott, which is essentially a disaster, burying both Bowie and Mick Ronson in the strings. The word "disrespectful" comes to mind. Also, any compilation that chooses Dancing In The Street, which should be an ironic footnote by now, over the original Cat People (Putting Out Fire) single deserves to be boycotted.

Another "legacy" collection is the 12-disc set Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976), the follow up to last year's Five Years (1969-1973) set. Both of these boxes are handsomely designed, with extensive books of photos and notes, and give decent value for money if you don't have the albums or if you're looking for a sonic upgrade. The new one covers Diamond Dogs through Station To Station and includes two lagniappes: a collection of mostly unnecessary single edits and mixes (including a ghastly chopped up Station To Station - never heard that on the radio!) and a "previously unreleased album" called The Gouster.

It's a little disingenuous to call The Gouster a "lost album" as it is essentially a rough draft of Young Americans. It does contain two spectacular songs that didn't make the cut in 1975, It's Gonna Be Me and Who Can I Be Now, which were originally released on the Rykodisc reissue of Young Americans in 1991 - and I have treasured them ever since. If you're not getting the box for other reasons, these two are available individually and are well worth downloading (you can also hear them on Spotify). But the fact remains that The Gouster, without Fascination and Fame to buoy the mood and tempo, was too ballad-heavy and likely would have failed. Bowie was smart to stop the presses and rejig the thing. I'm not even sure the earlier mix of the song Young Americans would have been a hit - it's a bit softer and David Sanborne's life-giving sax is less prominent. Finally, I'm one of the few that love Bowie's universally lambasted razor-sharp take on Across The Universe, which would never have existed if The Gouster had been released.

Another album that was thought to be lost is the original soundtrack recording for The Man Who Fell To Earth, the science fiction classic Bowie starred while working on Station To Station. While the idea of Bowie doing the soundtrack was obvious - and very appealing - he was unable to get it together (abortive sessions were deemed "substandard" by one of the participants) so a hodgepodge of sounds and songs was compiled to accompany Nicolas Roeg's vision of America as seen through alien eyes. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the master tapes were uncovered and the album was released for the first time. A huge "caveat emptor" sticker should be placed on the cover, which features a stunning photo of Bowie and some very nice typography. Let's be clear: Bowie is not on this album in any way, shape or form, not even in a line of interpolated dialog, which would have been a nice touch in fact.

So what do we get on TMWFTE? A bit of a dog's breakfast, featuring some great tracks from Japanese prog-rocker Stomu Yamashta (all available elsewhere), an OK version of Blueberry Hill by Louis Armstrong, a couple of movements of Holst's The Planets, and many, many mostly regrettable songs and fragments cobbled together by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. From mediocre jazzak to fake bluegrass, what Phillips came up with (on a tight deadline, I might add) is perfectly adequate in the context of the movie, but nothing you would want to listen to outside the theater. Mick Taylor completists can hear him jam on an instrumental of Hello Mary Lou and the theme song is weirdly appealing also kind of terrible - and those are the high points. Buy the Blu-Ray instead - it's a terrific movie.

Finally, for those seeking more of Donny McCaslin, this year also saw the release of his album Beyond Now, with the same musicians from Blackstar (minus guitarist Monder). I would never deny the experience McCaslin and the other players had working with Bowie, which sounds like it was life-changing, but I might question the rationale behind this album. Featuring five originals alongside covers of songs by electronic artists Mutemath and Deadmau5 and two by Bowie, the collection will probably fully satisfy neither fans of McCaslin or Bowie. A harsher critic might accuse McCaslin of pandering.

I should say that my relationship to current jazz is a difficult one. I rarely hear anything that makes me stand up and cheer the way Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane or other greats do. The last time I reviewed a jazz album that was not a reissue was Bobby Hutcherson's Enjoy The View in 2014. Maybe I'm missing something, demanding too much progress, or hopelessly stuck in the past - it's just that I'm always seeking music that feeds me and have not been finding that sustenance in today's jazz.

So the McCaslin originals seem OK, the EDM covers are nicely atmospheric, and the version of the Low instrumental Warszawa is pretty good. The cover of A Small Plot Of Land does nothing for me, however, and I actively dislike Jeff Taylor's stentorian singing. Maybe McCaslin should have called Charlie Pollock - I want to hear him sing more Bowie! It is instructive to listen to Beyond Now in relation to Blackstar, to begin to tease apart who brought what to the table. It makes it clearer than ever how in charge Bowie was, starting with the remarkable songwriting, from which everything flowed on Blackstar. So Beyond Now is ultimately for McCaslin enthusiasts only - but I imagine others could help you find better jazz in 2016.

A Final Thought

All of these other releases clinging to the fiery tail of Bowie and Blackstar streaking through the sky will remain on the periphery, more attached to 2016 than the album itself. The final work by David Robert Jones, AKA David Bowie AKA Ziggy Stardust AKA Aladdin Sane AKA The Thin White Duke AKA ★ will go on forever, at least as long as there are people seeking succor, adventure, and connection through music. 

You may also enjoy:
David Bowie
David Bowie Is...In Chicago
David Bowie: Life On Earth

Note: The illustration above contains a still from Blackstar, a video by David Bowie, © 2015 ISO Records, under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment

Monday, November 28, 2016

From Warhaus To Your House

At this late, post-postmodern date, most hints of originality come from putting old things together in new ways. Another way to spin things anew is by drawing on aspects of influential figures that may seem secondary to most. For example, if I told you that Maarten Devoldere's new project Warhaus was indebted to Leonard Cohen, you might first think of poetic lyrics, then a certain bruised romanticism, and finally an unconventional voice unafraid of its own limitations. While those facets of the late, great Canadian are indeed part of what makes Warhaus's album, We Fucked A Flame Into Being, a masterpiece, the first thing that came to mind as it revealed itself to me was Cohen's louche, Euro swagger. This kind of confident, stylish magnetism is all too rare in rock these days, more often evident in hip hop and R&B. 

Devoldere's other avatars on WFAFIB are Coney Island Baby-era Lou Reed, the Iggy Pop who waxed Tonight and Turn Blue, Dylan's dry, snarling wordplay, and the Stones at their most outré. If Bowie's Dirty Boys made an album, it might sound a bit like Warhaus. These aren't necessarily the overused influences most people draw from these artists, which is refreshing. Even if these touchstones are familiar they feel new here, partly as a result of the sound of the record. There's an almost tactile quality given to the air between the instruments which, could be due to the fact that  - if this short and brilliant documentary is to be believed - much of the album was tracked on a slightly broken down river boat in Belgium. Groovy percussion (gotcher cowbell in spades), spidery guitar, propulsive rhythms, and heavily processed horns are all sonic signatures that make Warhaus distinctive.

There's also Devoldere's tight songwriting, which would make these songs memorable even if he bashed them out on a guitar with four strings and a couple of bullet holes. He's been honing his craft for a while as a member of Balthazar, a solid if somewhat unfocused indie band from Brussels. The attention they've attracted, mainly in Europe, is no doubt a credit to more than just being the most rocked up thing from Belgium since Plastique Bertrand. But Devoldere's time on the river has elevated his art into the highest echelons, launched on gloriously shocking lines like "I've got one hand on a Champagne-drinking cunt/I've got the other up the ass of the establishment/And I can't even distinguish which hand is which/God knows, I tried to be against the rich." 

The fact that he can spew such a bilious screed while still maintaining our sympathies is another indication of the razor's edge Devoldere rides throughout the album. At the end of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, from whence this album's title comes, Mellors writes to Connie: "We fucked a flame into being. Even the flowers are fucked into being between the sun and the earth. But it's a delicate thing, and takes patience and the long pause." So if you get a little burned or bloody while listening to Warhaus, be patient and let the blossoming beauties within heal you. Besides, you were warned that rock & roll is dangerous. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen

"There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen, Anthem

"I know you're really great," a Columbia Records exec once said to Leonard Cohen, "but are you any good?" The answer, thank god, was no. Cohen was no good at being a cog in the pop music machinery that keeps the music business humming. He was no good at being at toeing the folk music line, moving further and further away from being a guitar-toting troubadour into his own chilly blend of synth-noir-gospel-muzak. In fact, the transition from Various Positions, the 1984 album that contains the original recording of Hallelujah, to 1992's The Future (via I'm Your Man, 1988), is a quieter but even more startling musical transformation than when Bob Dylan went electric.

I think it may have been Various Positions that caused that uncomfortable conversation with his label boss in the first place. Perhaps it was at that same meeting that Cohen was informed that Columbia was done releasing his albums in the U.S., putting out the album on Portrait, a subsidiary label, and only in Canada. How ironic that the album that contains one of Cohen's most covered songs wasn't deemed fit for wide release. I guess those head honchos were not yet aware of the "long tail" - and it's a good thing John Cale buys import records!

The Columbia guy was right about one thing: Cohen was great, one of the greatest poets to grace the world of music. There are endless lines to quote, from love songs to apocalyptic prophecies, words to puzzle over, and words to take to heart. How lucky that he could also come up with melodies, or find the right collaborators to create them, to hang his brilliant words on, and could deliver them in a voice that, post-Dylan, seemed at first rather sweet and which was always persuasive. The fact that he even tried is down to Dylan, whose example led Cohen to come back from his never-ending Greek vacation to see if there was a place for him on the folk scene.

The story I heard had him coming to New York with a sheaf of songs, hoping to get Peter, Paul & Mary or someone like that to record them. He showed up in Judy Collins's living room and tentatively strummed a few chords and sang Suzanne and one or two others. She was immediately taken with the man and the songs, recording Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag in 1966 and putting Cohen on the map as a songwriter. The next year, Collins literally pushed Cohen back on stage, launching him as a performer. We owe her a lot for being his champion, which really only worked because her engagement with his work was so sincere. "His songs carried me through dark years," Collins wrote in her autobiography, "like mantras or stones that you hold in your hand while the sun rises or the fire burns." I can relate. "It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded" - just one line that has helped me as much as therapy. Thank you for finally saying it!

Now that Cohen is gone, dead on November 10th at the age of 82, we can see his career as a whole in all it's beautiful idiosyncrasy, marvelling at the perfect capstone of his last album, You Want It Darker, which came out just weeks ago. Brilliantly produced by Cohen's son Adam, there's a pitch black slinkiness married to European and American melodic tropes (with a dash of the Synagogue on the title track) that ties up many of Cohen's virtues in a fascinating package. Speaking of packages (Cohen liked his puns), one of his virtues was his carnality, his recognition of the body - a burden and a blessing - and the leavening that lust can bring to love. The biggest clue to me that the new album might be his last were these lines in Leaving The Table: "I don't need a lover, no, no/The wretched beast is tame/I don't need a lover/So blow out the flame."

He was already singing about Suzanne's "perfect body" back in 1967, his continental sophistication making the open sexuality seem cool rather than just the fantasies of another horndog. He was like your perpetually cool older brother, a man of the world who had seen it all and done it all before you even realized it could be seen and done - and always with style, grace, compassion, and seamless craftsmanship. He was also generous, giving the many musicians on stage with him their due in charming introductions and solo spots. One of his most magnanimous acts was allowing the singer Anjani Thomas (who accompanied him on several albums, including The Future and Dear Heather) to rifle through his old notebooks and create songs based on the lyrics she found there. The result, an album called Blue Alert, is one of my favorite products of Cohen's career, and one that is criminally underrated.

On a remarkable live recording of the two of them recorded in Poland in 2007, Cohen makes a lengthy introduction, which concludes: "These are songs that Anjani and I wrote about the little places, about the little loves, about the little corners." Here's to all the little things that loom so large because they matter so deeply to each of us - Cohen was one of the few that recognized them as worthy of being the subject of poetry and song, inscribing them in our hearts and in the firmament forever. Above all, here's to Leonard Cohen's indomitable humanity, a quality I fear we shall miss with a sharper sting over the next four years.

Rather than try to outsmart the master, I'll show my gratitude with a few words from the last song on Blue Alert:

"Thanks for the dance
It's been hell, it's been swell
It's been fun
Thanks for all the dances
One two three, one two three one"

Here's a quick playlist of some of my Leonard Cohen essentials - subject to further refinement, because he deserves no less:

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood

Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol both feature photos by William Gedney
"You can't choose your blues but you might as well own them."
- from Tell Her I'm Just Dancing by M.C. Taylor

M.C. Taylor knows the wisdom of a tambourine, sunk deep in the groove like a clock carrying your burden of time. He knows the warmth of the horn section that comes in just at the right moment, perfect as the key in the lock of a lover's long-awaited return. And he knows how a few notes on a piano can speak volumes more than even the most well-turned lyric. In short, Taylor, who performs and records as Hiss Golden Messenger, is a genius record-maker as much as he is a brilliant songwriter and a gritty-sweet singer. I've met the guy a couple of times and he is as humble as can be - he would probably give credit for much of the above to his superb co-producer Bradley Cook, who certainly plays a large role. But note whose name is on the record, who calls the final shots, and who stands at the front of the stage every night. 

Your iTunes might still classify Heart Like A Levee as folk, and that is indeed where Taylor sowed his seeds since beginning the HGM project. But there has always been a drive to his music, and a lack of orthodoxy, that makes it something other than that. This is even more true on the new album, which is open to a broader range of influences than Lateness of Dancers, his breakthrough record from 2014. Tinges of a fully-owned L.A. slickness give new life to the heartland gospel-soul-folk-rock. There's also new sense of the epic and cinematic, especially on songs such as Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer and Ace of Cups Hung Low Band. The first is a ruthless engine of interlocking parts, driven forward by a tube-driven swamp fire of a guitar that I figure must've been played by either Phil Cook, Brad's brother and a frequent Taylor collaborator (and a great artist in his own right) or Ryan Gustafson, a bit of a guitar wizard who performs as The Dead Tongues. Ace of Cups starts quiet, the credits rolling over a 70mm landscape, before locking into a soaring verse that sounds like a never-ending ending. Finality is not always a static state. 

The visual quality of many of the songs comes naturally, as Taylor was inspired not only by his own life but by the "durable and humane photographic vision" of William Gedney, who traveled the world capturing complex portraits of whole communities. Gedney's archive is housed at Duke University, which is where many of these songs were premiered after the school commissioned a project from Taylor. Great realist photographers like Gedney present an alternate way of seeing the completely recognizable world. While I think these new perspectives have enriched Taylor's art, I wouldn't put too much weight on the Gedney connection - Taylor is a protean artist who keeps moving forward no matter what.

Lyrically, Taylor has gotten bolder with his mix of the imagistic, mythic, prosaic, and the literary. Cracked Window zig zags in a couple of different directions with an intuitive grace: "Monday morning early, getting the kids to school/I can fix this, babe-I can fix this, babe/I can see the ghosts coming over the tidewater plains/I don't know if I'm running." He heads into some dark territory but there is often light visible, a dewy new dawn just arriving, or close enough. From Highland Grace: "I'd been searching in the mirror, but seeing my own face didn't make it any clearer/I'd rage against the hard times while others smiled to say, "Hey, take it easy."/And lo, this little angel was standing in the rain/Oh just what I needed." Words and music both are slightly soaked in the perception of an altered consciousness. Even Say It Like You Mean It, as straightforward a country-rock song as Taylor would release, contains the lines "Desire/Like a wire/Lead the choir/Tripping on that Orange County Wine."

Likely Taylor is more tired than high, however; there's an underlying theme found in the contradiction of being a devoted family man whose growing success, while elevating him as a provider, finds him often on the road, away from the ones he loves. This comes through in As The Crow Flies, which delineates a series of tour stops and has a chorus concluding "Don't get down/You're nothing but a number," all over a lockstep groove reminiscent of Turn Out The Lights from Lou Reed's Legendary Hearts.  But there's no self-pity, he's just a conscientious man with a bent for self-examination, trying to do what's right both for his art and his family.

Although it might not help with the fatigue, one thing Taylor does to deal with his concerns is work. The deluxe edition of Heart Like a Levee comes with Vestapol, a bonus album of eight more songs "Written and produced by M.C. Taylor at home, and in various hotels and apartments." He could just have been watching Game Of Thrones on HBO Go but instead he was creating. These are spare but fully realized songs, the occasional sweetening somehow amplifying an intimacy that is a privilege to witness. It's also great to hear some of Taylor's intricate and hypnotic fingerpicking - so beautifully in evidence when I saw him perform solo in Prospect Park last summer - Elizabeth Cotten would be gratified. If you're already in the Hiss Golden Messenger camp you were probably going to go deluxe anyway, but Vestapol really delivers, unlike some bonus tracks.

Like all of Taylor's work, both Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol display a heartfelt creative spirit that is dedicated to giving people something of value. However, it doesn't always come easy, as is evident in another couplet from Cracked Windshield: "A song is just a feeling and when you make it pay the rent/Next thing that you know, you're saying something you'd never say." Least of your worries, M.C., least of your worries. 

Hiss Golden Messenger's music takes on bit of a different tone in concert, adding a roadhouse backbeat and bringing songs to new heights through ecstatic extended passages. On stage, I think the only weight on Taylor's shoulders is a white Telecaster or an acoustic guitar and it's a beautiful thing to experience. I can't wait to be there on November 15th when Taylor and Co. rock the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I highly recommend you check into tour dates near you ASAP and get to the show. You'll get the message, loud and clear.

You may also enjoy:
Long Time Coming
New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Best of 14 (Part 2)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated, And Beyond

Oceans of music are flowing in under, over, and around me. This is no last-gasp geyser, but rather the result of passionate musicians, composers, and labels pursuing musical bliss - and delivering it to us lucky listeners. In another attempt to stem the tide, here is a roundup of recent or upcoming releases in the realm of classical, contemporary and avant garde music.

Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet - Carolina Eyck with American Contemporary Music Ensemble There are so many ideas and even theories behind this music - from how it was composed to fit an LP record, to the way the names of the pieces were chosen (" scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations...) - that I am reluctant to add more words about it to the world. Beyond "You must hear this!" that is, as it is an extraordinary album. I was aware of Eyck as a theremin virtuoso, but not as a composer. In this case, she wrote the string quartet music, sometimes sparkling, sometimes melancholy, always melodic, played here by Caroline Shaw, Ben Russell (violins), Caleb Burhans (viola), and Clarice Jensen (cello), and then improvised her theremin parts while listening to the recordings. You would never know that, however, so well does it all fit together, taking you on a seamless journey as only a well-sequenced album can. While some of the sounds she causes the theremin to emit did have my wife saying "Getting spooky!" there are almost no clichés to her use of this early electronic instrument. It often sounds like the human voice and, in fact, and I've never experienced the bass tones of the theremin as she plays them here. I strongly recommend you find a real stereo with which to listen to Fantasias. Kudos to producer Allen Farmelo for the technical wizardry and for the literate and fascinating liner notes, including thoughts on dragons and Derrida. This is one of the records of the year - and you can hear it live for the first time on November 4th.

Ice & Longboats - Ensemble Mare Balticum For more journeys in a Scandinavian vein, set sail with these meticulously researched (yet still speculative) performances of ancient music (1200-1582) from that region, on recreated instruments. It's highly atmospheric, sometimes hypnotic, and only the merest bit kitschy. Anyone making a movie or TV show about Vikings - here's your soundtrack.

Taylor Brook: Ecstatic Music - Tak Ensemble Based on Ice & Longboats, Vikings liked strange and dissonant sounds on occasion, which makes me think they would have liked some of this album. Brook likes to push the envelope, employing extended and techniques to produce music which never becomes quite familiar even upon repeated listens. The title track has a ritualistic, theatrical sound that is highly evocative, violin and percussion combining to sound like much more. The use of "microtonally tuned guitars" as drums probably helps in that regard. The sense of theater continues with Five Weather Reports, a song cycle with words from David Ohle's cult novel Motorman. Charlotte Mundy does a remarkable job with the vocals, switching from spoken word to soprano flights on a dime, all perfectly pitched, with command and humor. Mundy is also great with the vocalise of Amalgam, the last piece, but then all of the Tak Ensemble members show complete commitment to Brook's conception, turning in sympathetic performances (including using his guitar machine) that are further proof that it's a wonderful time to be writing challenging, original music. Let your ears be sympathetic as well, especially the first time you listen - the rewards of Ecstatic Music are many.

Garden of Diverging Paths - Mivos Quartet Taylor Brook's music also features on this album by Mivos, an adventurous group whom I discovered because of their gorgeous collaboration with vocalist Zola Jesus. Here they play three works based on the written word, starting with Brook's title piece, which is based on a short story by Borges and uses imaginary theories and histories to create music that sounds alien and ancient at once. Andrew Greenwald, who co-directs Ensemble Pamplemousse, contributes A Thing Is A Hole In A Thing It Is Not, a single movement of scratchy, scrapey and high-pitched sounds that somehow holds together. The title is from a remark by conceptual artist Carl Andre and keeps you guessing as much as the music does. Greenwald has also produced arrangements of this work for two cellos and even solo euphonium - check it out. The final work, Nadja, finds the Mivos joining forces with the composer, Kate Soper, who sings vocal parts drawn from Tennyson, Ovid, and Breton. Even in the quiet moments, this is fiercely engaging listening, and Soper is in fine form. This whole collections more than lives up to the "adventurous" tag I hung on the Mivos above. Now it's your turn to be adventurous and listen.

Ginastera: One Hundred - Yolanda Kondonassis, Oberlin Orchestra, et al If you're crying for more Argentina in your life after listening to the Borges-inspired piece on the Mivos album, have I got a record for you. As the title makes plain, Alberto Ginastera was born 100 years ago, which means he began composing at a critical time in the development of a distinctive Argentinian culture. The central tension between the rural (old) and urban (new) was an animating force in much of the music and art of the time and Ginastera rode the line in fine style. His Harp Concerto, performed here with extraordinary skill and feeling by Yolanda Kondonassis, is the definitive large-scale work for her instrument. Ginastera surrounds the harp's sparkle with colorful, wonderfully evocative melodies, harmonies and orchestration. One thing that makes the Concerto special is the way he both pushes the harp into new territory and exploits its familiar qualities perfectly. Kondonassis couldn't have asked for a better partner than the Oberlin Orchestra under the direction of Raphae Jiménez. Actually she did ask for it as she executive-produced the album. She must have a hell of a Rolodex, too, as the other works are performed by the likes of Gil Shaham, Orli Shaham, and Jason Vieaux, who are all the best at what they do. The Sonata for Guitar is a late work for Ginastera, composed in1976, seven years before he died. It seems to synthesize many of his ideas about the past informing the present and Vieaux's playing is preternaturally assured, dashing off the intricate work with the flair of a gaucho troubadour on horseback. The Shaham siblings acquit themselves nicely in the romantic and slightly jazzy Pampanea No. 1 and Orli digs into the cutting-edge virtuoso charms (two keys at once? We got that!) of Three Danzas Argentinas to close the album. Kondonassis has done a service to Ginastera's legacy with One Hundred and we are the  beneficiaries of her advocacy. I would say if you own one record of Ginastera it should be this one - however, I think you'll want more after hearing this. 

Simple Gifts - The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center As it happens, Ginastera studied with Aaron Copland on a Guggenheim fellowship in the 40's, learning much about how to push harmonies further while still keeping your music accessible. Appalachian Spring, Copland's score for a Martha Graham ballet, is Exhibit A for this approach, feeling as American as corn on the cob without being corny, thanks to its spare, modern design. This is much like the Shaker attitude towards design and architecture, which makes their furniture and buildings look so timeless and inviting. Of course, Copland's masterpiece has been recorded dozens of times, including a fairly definitive account conducted by the composer and recorded in glorious Living Stereo in the early 60's. But here we have what may be the best version yet. Marketers at Lincoln Center would like you to know that it was recorded live "in the heart of an authentic Shaker village," and filmed for broadcast on PBS. This is a first, apparently, and maybe it did inspire the musicians to new heights. The tempos are perfectly judged, the dew-limned opening notes flowing into one of the great slow builds in music, kept so taut that you're on the edge of your seat even if you've heard the work many times, and the full gallop is as thrilling as it should be. The sonics are delightful as well, with clear textures, a wide dynamic range, all the detail you could want - and no audience noise, not a cough or a creaking chair, intrudes. Until the end, that is, when the crowd explodes, seemingly fully aware that they had just heard something special. Due to my own particularities, the rest of the album, which includes short pieces by Louis Gottschalk, Samuel Barber, Dvorak, Mark O'Connor and Stephen Foster, is basically superfluous. Everything is performed brilliantly - the CMS is a band of virtuosos - and if you like the music you'll love this recording. I also loved reading the excellent liner notes and learning that Barber was a fan of Edie & Rack, the 1940's piano duo - I've never seen their names anywhere except on singles that I found in my grandmother's collection after she died. Perhaps she and the composer of Adagio for Strings crossed paths at the Blue Angel Club...but I digress. This is the Appalachian Spring to hear, so make a plan and get it done. That's the American way.

Restless - Ken Thomson If Copland is bit on the modern side for you - but you like it - here's a quick catapult into the 21st century, and I promise a painless flight. Throughout this album, composer Thomson displays a muscular approach to romanticism that is shorn of sentimentality - this is emotional music, but free of bathos or ornamentation. Restless, a four-movement work for cello and piano, sounded perfect the first time I heard it, as if it had always been there, but also very fresh. Think of your favorite room, and imagine it as it was when it was new - that's Restless, with the fourth movement being the dark corner you don't visit often. Part of its indomitability must be due to the spectacular playing of Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano), who sound like much more than a duo. Bathgate is a Bang On A Can luminary, so I would expect no less, but Larson is new to me, and it is he who is in the spotlight on side two (like Eyck's Fantasias, this was conceived as a vinyl album). Me Vs., a three movement work for solo piano, can be spikier and more fragmented than Restless but still feels inevitable and deeply involving. Thomson has done something very special here, and while these recordings and performances are already ideal, I hope to see both of these pieces enter the repertoire on record and in the concert hall. Think I'm blowing smoke? Come to Le Poisson Rouge on November 9th for the album release concert and hear for yourself.

Westside Industrial - M.O.T.H. Like most of the records discussed here, there is more than meets the ear to Westside Industrial. If you're interested, you can look into the conceptual framework in which the project is "a narrative response to the commodification of culture and the fallout that occurs when lifestyles are turned into brands in order to sell real estate." There is a performative aspect as well, using "handwritten journal entries, voicemail recordings, poetic dialogue and photographic imagery," framing a narrative. But here we just have the music, three long tracks of "nervous ambient" (my term), created using guitars, analog pedals, radio signals and other sound generators, making for seamless audio paintings. It's quite beautiful, and the details, especially when listening through headphones, are wonderfully textural. This is the second album by M.O.T.H., the nom de guerre of Matt Finch, with 3 Vignettes from 2015 being equally worthy of investigation. Between the two albums, M.O.T.H. should now be considered to a reliable brand name of it's own. Buy in.

As always, let me know what I'm missing, and keep up with the totality of 2016 here.

You may also enjoy:
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed
Record Roundup: Classical Composure
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Bit Like Goodbye: Big Star's Complete Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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