Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Of 12: Part Two

Is there an opposite of "ado"? Here goes...

1. The Walkmen - Heaven I've been along for the ride with Hamilton Leithauser & Co. since the first album and it has been a joy to hear them grow. Each album has expanded on their sound and explored further reaches within it. Even in the context of their progression, Heaven is a bold and startling leap forward. Perhaps touring with Fleet Foxes (and working with their producer, Phil Ek) gave Leithauser the confidence to wipe away the reverb and just sing out. His crystal clear tenor perfectly embodies songs that, for all their individuality, touch the elemental core of why we sing in the first place, and the band plays with a sizzling passion. There's something elemental about Heaven that looks back to bedrock artists like Buddy Holly - and even further back, to the earliest troubadours. The Walkmen connect with the lifeblood of music and directly to my heart.
2. Breton - Other People's Problems These brilliant 21st century art-rockers have given their all this year, touring extensively, releasing this dark (but never despairing) and often funky album, the terrific Blanket Rule EP, and ending the year with a killer single, Population Density. Can't say I'm sure why they remain cult-bound in this country, but it is certainly not because I've slacked on spreading the word. Get the memo.
3. Father John Misty - Fear Fun It was a great moment when the first video from this transcendent album dropped into my iTunes. All those Dum Dum Girls tracks Sub Pop had been foisting on me were quickly forgotten when I got a taste of J.Tillman's new persona. Bitingly witty and with the best singing and songwriting of his career, the new name seems to have begotten almost an entirely new artist out of whole cloth. The hip-shaking, slightly pissed off Misty also deserves to be called Performer Of The Year - catch him if you can. And I was having so much fun singing along to I'm Writing A Novel that I barely worried who was going to be the new sticks man for my beloved Fleet Foxes.
4. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange Deep and delightful, dirty and sublime, this album singlehandedly redefined modern R&B. It's also a unifying force, appearing on more year-end lists than any other album as far as I can tell. Sometimes you just can't argue with ubiquity. One caveat: the first time I listened to the hamhanded Super Rich Kids was also the last.
5. Jeremy Denk - Ligeti/Beethoven Programming concerts and albums to cause communication across the centuries is fairly common practice these days. Denk just follows through on the concept in more dazzling fashion than most. Somehow he gets Ligeti's ultra-knotty Etudes to breathe, and their twists, turns and spikes prepare your ears to re-experience Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 with an alertness to every detail. When the Sonata ends and we are returned to Ligeti's world, it seems perfectly natural for both composers to occupy the same universe. It's a journey you'll want to repeat.
6. Domenico - Ciné Privé Miguel Atwood-Ferguson has his hands in so many things that it should be no surprise that he was my introduction to this bewitching Brazilian musician. Spare yet immersive grooves limn relaxed vocals that speak to me regardless of any language barrier. Members of Wilco guest on this fantastic album, which was recorded some years ago but is just now getting a U.S. release featuring Atwood-Ferguson's string-bedecked remix of Receita.
7. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music This is the album us die-hard Killer Mike fans have been waiting for since his OutKast-assisted debut back in 2003. Bona fide block rocking beats from Brooklyn's own El-P provide the perfect foundation for Mike's raps, which range from heartfelt to enraged. His demolition of Ronald Reagan's legacy is so complete that when he points out that the ex-President's name is (numerologically speaking) the number of the beast, you just nod your head. Hopefully all the attention R.A.P. Music is getting will shine a light on PL3DGE, his last album, which was nearly as good.
8. Bob Dylan - Tempest I literally feel pity for those whose inability to tolerate Dylan's current voice(s) is preventing them from hearing the mastery at work on this bloody-minded album. As the man himself puts it in Narrow Way: "If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday." Don't just take Bob's legendary staus for granted, open your mind and ears and experience it for yourself as it's happening.
9. The Darcys - Aja In which the Toronto band remakes Steely Dan's multi-platinum masterpiece in their own image. It's an act of homage that dismantles the object of The Darcys affections, exposing the darkness at its core. When I asked lead singer Jason Couse if Becker and Fagen had heard their baby's new incarnation, he was only able to report that a Dropbox had been accessed by Becker's assistant. Hopefully they "got the news" by now. You can get it for free.
10. Talea Ensemble - Fausto Romitelli: Anamorphosis In concert after concert around the world, this adventurous and virtuosic group is bringing the composed music of our times to full-blooded life. Their debut album features world premieres of five pieces by Romitelli, who died at 41 in 2004, all played to perfection. On February 4th, 2013, Talea will be paying tribute to patron Ralph Kaminsky, alongside other new music luminaries including Alarm Will Sound and the JACK Quartet, at Merkin Concert Hall. I wouldn't miss it!
Still to come: Best Of The Rest and Out Of The Past (reissues and other older sounds)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best of 12: Part One

The amount of great music I've heard this year, from new discoveries to long-anticipated releases, was high enoughg that I have decided to expand to a Top 20. I gotta say that anyone who is nostalgic for the music of a prior era, and/or bemoaning a dearth of good listening today, should perhaps inspect their surroundings for the mud they are stuck in.

Without further ado, here's 11-20.

11. Scott Walker - Bish Bosch Walker's trajectory from pop idol (mainly in the U.K.) to explorer of art rock extremes was perfectly described in the documentary 30 Century Man, which went a long way toward helping me make the leap to where he had landed on The Drift, his last album. The new one is no less radical but seems more assured and employs a greater dynamic range sonically and lyrically. While the lyrics mix dreadful episodes from human history with more personal tribulations, they are often bitterly hilarious: "If shit were music/You'd be a brass band." Bish Bosch is Walker's most convincing foray into the realm of art song and it would be a wonderful thing if a song or two made it into the performance repertoire of one of our more adventurous new music ensembles. That would make it an easier wait if it takes him another six years to make his next album.

12. Hospitality - Hospitality The charm of Amber Papino and co.'s expertly produced pop has not worn off, in fact more layers of guitars and vintage synths have been revealed. Puts a spring in my step every time.

13. Quakers - Quakers In the year Kanye finally released his G.O.O.D. Music collection, who would suspect it would get stomped by a trio of British music geeks (led by Portishead's Geoff Barrow) and a huge posse of mostly unknown rappers. The beats are as omniverous as the rhymes, with sounds and subjects spanning a deleriously wide range. The breakout star may be Jonwayne, who's set to drop his debut on Stones Throw in 2013.

14. Patrick Watson - Adventures In Your Own Backyard At it's best, Watson's latest has a soaring epic sweep that channels Ennio Morricone, yet maintains his trademark intimacy. When I saw him at Bowery Ballroom earlier this year, I'm sure everyone in the room felt he was singing just for them. If the album were a four act play, however, it could be said to suffer from some third act longeurs, which is why it's not in the upper ten for this year.

15. Baroness - Yellow & Green Conceived as a double album to focus attention on their heavier and lighter sides, Yellow & Green is ultimately a unified collection of their most emotionally connected, compositionally sophisticated music. More here.

16. Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes Electronic music has never had more personality than when Steven "Flying Lotus" Ellison is at work. Using a lush palette of tones and textures (including the guest vocals of Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke) he provides a soundtrack that makes even a trip to Target an adventure.

17. Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits Just when I was despairing of new sounds from Britt Daniel, his collaboration (don't call it a super group) with Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs and Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks exploded on the scene. Echoes of Spoon's stripped down approach are heard, along with the dynamic tension and release of bands like Wire and the electro-infused sound of early Simple Minds. Producer Nick Launay, who cut his teeth on albums like the latter's Empires And Dance, and Alex Fischel on keyboards ably abet the creation of a great collection of passionate pop. Their committed live set on Sound Opinions gives hope that this is not just a one-off.

18. Matthew E. White - Big Inner This lavishly orchestrated series of songs was one of the surprises of the year. White's synthesis of varying streams of Americana is fascinating and stays mysterious through many listens. Long in the background as an arranger and composer, White just needs a little more vocal confidence to own the spotlight. Based on the concert I saw, that's already in progress. After all, he's only a "Big Inner." His playlists on Spotify make me think we're somehow related. Find them under "amattwhitejoint" - also his Twitter handle.

19. Fenster - Bones Like its title suggests, this is a somewhat skeletal affair, sonically speaking. But it's also emotionally rich and the songs are constructed out of sturdy stuff.

20. Hilary Hahn & Hauschka - Silfra Improvisational composing may not have come quickly to a classically trained musician like Hahn, but you would never know it from this hand-in-glove collaboration with Hauschka, the prepared-piano wizard. Goes down easy, but covers a lot of ground.

Coming up: 1-10, Best Of The Rest, and Out Of The Past (reissues and other older sounds).

 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Led Zep Vic Lap






Yes, I was one of those people who broke the Internet trying to get a ticket for Led Zeppelin's performance at the Ahmet Ertegun tribute back in 2007. Like most of the 20 million in the lottery, I did not get lucky. I was OK with that result because it would have been a logistical nightmare to get there, especially considering they had to reschedule the date due to Jimmy Page's injuring his hand.

Let's face it though - I am a huge fan of the band and would have done whatever it took to get there. At the time, the reports were that the concert was good, maybe even great. In the ensuing months (that quickly turned to years) I heard bootlegs of both the performance and the production rehearsal and it all sounded more than respectable. It was certainly a far cry from the slightly farcical Live Aid set and the lackluster Atlantic Records anniversary gig.

All that said, I was slightly unprepared for just how absurdly great Celebration Day, the DVD/CD package that was recently released, is. Eighteen months of editing have created a concert film like none other, surprisingly intimate without slighting the power and grandeur that is a given where Led Zeppelin is concerned. The camera always seems to be exactly where you want it to be, whether observing John Paul Jones's deft footwork on the organ pedals or Jimmy Page's satisfied grin after an intense solo. I look forward to watching it again.

The audio is an incredibly satisfying listening experience, with blistering energy and much nuance. Right from the crushing chords that open Good Times Bad Times, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jason Bonham (sitting in for his late, great father) play with a fire and a fury that belies their ages - and the age of the music. The band does a great job of stripping away some of the more indulgent aspects of their 70's concerts and letting the music speak for itself. Page sprays glorious barrages of smeared notes and attacks his classic riffs with a vengeance. Jones is ever nimble on the bass and his keyboard work is rich and assured. Plant's voice is a lot lower than during his prime but he could still unleash those spine-tingling howls. Jason Bonham, who had perhaps the hardest job that night, succeeds in honoring his father's titanic groove and applying his own personality, with a sizzling and sometimes loose drive that seems to keep Page and Jones on their toes.

While everyone will have their opinion on what songs they should have played (Ten Years Gone would have made me very happy), the care with which they put together the set list is apparent. In any case, the fact than they included the first-ever live performance of For Your Life, along with a couple of other stage rarities, puts much second guessing to rest.

If this is indeed the final statement of Led Zeppelin as a contemporary performing entity, it is a worthy and well/deserved victory lap. As a live album plus concert film it is likely without equal in the annals of rock. Any Zep fan will consume it eagerly and skeptics may be lured into a change of heart. Five years was worth the wait and Celebration Day could not have a more apt title - it is indeed something to celebrate, right down to the artwork, which is hip enough that my 13 year-old daughter had to have the t-shirt. Leave it to Zeppelin to remain relevant, even when releasing a five year old concert of 30 year old songs.

A final note about Jimmy Page. I have often said that he is my second favorite guitarist and he does nothing here that would cause me to change my opinion. "I'm not a guitarist as far as a technician goes. I deal in emotion," Page has said, and I think that's what I respond to. While listening to Celebration Day for the second or third time, it dawned on me that, though his contemporary output may be paltry, he is the greatest living guitar player. I, for one, will treasure every note he decides to reveal to us.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Message To Love: To Jimi At 70



Dear Jimi,
Best wishes on your 70th Birthday.
Though we never met, and I never had the opportunity to see you perform, I am thankful to have walked the earth at the same time as you. Most of all, I am just grateful to have your music in my life.
I have a friend from high school who claims that I dressed like you for all of 9th grade. I think it was more that you blew my mind so completely that it was visible from the outside. All these years later I can still be surprised and wonder-struck by your music.
You are surely the greatest guitarist of all time, as well as a great songwriter, a wonderful singer, and a pioneering master of studio recording. The ramifications of your premature death will never be fully understood. Thankfully, due to bootlegs and a steady stream of reissues and posthumous releases, we have a better idea of what might have been. Somehow I think I know that whatever else you would have accomplished, it would have been beautiful and profound.
On July 17, 1970, you played your last concert in NYC at the New York Pop Festival on Randall's Island, less than five miles from where I grew up on the Upper West Side. Perhaps the sounds of your "public saxophone" drifted on the winds into a five-year-old's bedroom...
Rock on, brother.
Here's a sample from that concert:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Benjamin Britten



Today is Benjamin Britten's 99th birthday. While I'm sure there will be much fanfare for his centenary in 2013, I'm not going to wait to celebrate this wonderful composer. Here's how I found my way to him.

Often I find new music through other music. When I was falling down the rabbit hole of Dmitri Shostakovich's oeuvre back in the late 80's, I kept seeing references to Britten and simply got curious. Like many, I had heard The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra but never knew anything else.

My interest dovetailed perfectly with a major reissue project of recordings conducted by the composer. The attractive packaging pushed me over the edge and I gave the disc featuring the Symphonia Da Requiem and the Cello Symphony a try. It was love at first play. This was music that was complex, knotty, superbly orchestrated and, most importantly, warm, open-hearted and emotional. A door was opened to a rich catalog of operas, songs and orchestral and chamber works and I entered fully into it. Those qualities that I heard on first listen are almost always evident in varying degrees and almost all of his music is deeply satisfying.

Britten vies with Richard Strauss as THE major opera composer of the 20th century and would serve as a wonderful introduction to the operatic experience. Start with Peter Grimes or Billy Budd, or, for sheer delight, his wondrous take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. But here's a clip from the Cello Symphony, so you can start where I started.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Miles Davis: Live-Evil



It was back on this day in 1971 that Miles Davis let loose another shot across the bow of the jazz academy. After the astounding and confounding Bitches Brew and the guitar-and-rage-driven assault of A Tribute To Jack Johnson, along came Live-Evil, which was at times both of those things and at times neither. Assembled by secret weapon Teo Macero from recordings made at the Cellar Door in DC and shorter pieces recorded in the studio, the album was a sprawling affair. The expansive live tracks were closely miked, however, and blend in perfectly with the studio material.

The sounds ranged from the bite of John McLaughlin's guitar as it opens Gemini/Double Image, to the soothing vocalise of Hermeto Pascoal on Nem Un Talvez, and everything in between. Michael Henderson's bass and Jack DeJohnette's drums provide a nearly non-stop locomotion on the live takes, dividing and subdividing the rhythms like atomic scientists. Of course, there was also Miles's trumpet, sometimes processed through a wah-wah into an almost purely electronic texture, and sometimes a breathy and ethereal exhalation. The transformation of his horn into something synthetic is emphasized by the musical conception of his solos, often assembled from short rhythmic bursts that grow increasingly knotty.

As on Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, Macero deserves most, if not all, the credit for the structural integrity of the final product. As I understand it, Miles would record, record and record - and then go on the road, leaving Macero to sort through the tape and assemble something that made sense. Obviously, the live material was spectacular, (The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, which includes six sets from his residency at the club, is essential listening), but Macero made something that stood on its own as a work of art. Finally, Live-Evil was a confirmation that this new direction of Miles's was no passing fancy, but something he was going to pursue as far as it went. He continued to refine and expand the approach of these three albums until 1975, when he retired for five years due to drug and health problems.

Miles was so far ahead of his time during that period, that perhaps it was for the best that he took a pause. However, it took longer than five years for the world to come to grips with what he achieved from 1970-75 - and I was no different than the average jazz fan in this regard.

Kind of Blue and In A Silent Way were staples of mine from high school through college, but it wasn't until around 1997 that Miles grabbed my heart completely - and it turned out to be his electric period that did it. After years of disarray, Columbia had launched a massive reissue campaign and I found myself confronting Live-Evil in the listening station at J&R Music World. Even though I had found Bitches Brew baffling, I thought I'd give it a try and selected the track called What I Say. And then...WOW. I literally began to cry when, after what seemed like several minutes of fabulous funk intro, his horn entered - gloriously.

Although many different motives and impulses have been assigned to Miles's push into this terrain, it occurred to me that by assembling these big groups of electric and eclectic players, he was just creating a place where he could BE. And isn't that something we're all looking for?




Thursday, November 15, 2012

Isaac Hayes

Forty-one years ago today, Isaac Hayes released Black Moses, a massive double-album set that solidified his position as one of the most ambitious and commanding musical figures of the era. I grew up with his music but as I delved deeper, I found I had a lot to learn.

The only thing I can say about Ike is, if you think you know the man, you probably don't know the man. Like Shaft himself, he's complicated. Similar to Sly Stone, he had spectacular early success, first as the writer (often with David Porter) of some of the greatest songs of the 60's for Stax Records, and then with his second solo album, Hot Buttered Soul, and the Oscar-winning Theme From Shaft.

Couple years later, however, interest inexplicably waned. I'm always looking to go deep into anyone's music if they've had a long career - and I refuse to kowtow to received opinion without hearing for myself. It quickly became obvious that some albums I'd never even heard of (To Be Continued) were fantastic and ones that were often derided (Chocolate Chip) were good to great. Also, his voice grew on me a lot over the years, proving to be more nimble and expressive than it first appeared. As I soon began telling everyone who would listen, every Isaac Hayes album that I've heard so far has at least one great song and often more.

While it might have baffled some people that this iconic soul songwriter was mostly doing covers (and songs by Bacharach & David, Jimmy Webb and The Carpenters, no less), that was just an expression of his progressive nature. He'd already scaled the mountaintop as a songwriter and it was time to move on. Thus the outrageous arrangements, the heartfelt and sometimes hilarious raps and the overall EPIC quality of his music. Goddamned right he was the first African-American to be nominated for a soundtrack Oscar - who else but Black Moses had the vision and the skills to bring funky soul music to the big screen?

He made big, long songs because his heart was so big and he was so earnest in love. He wanted nothing more than for it all to work out but he knew, he KNEW, that sometimes your thing was blown and you had to find somebody new. The music would always be there for him, though. As it is for you - now listen.

At first I was taken aback by his version of Fever, from his dismissed disco era, but that was because I had to free myself from the (deservedly) beloved Little Willie John and Peggy Lee records. Now I hear a divine madness.


He could also take a second-rate song and make it into an object of fascination.


As for Black Moses, it has many highlights, but who could forget the indelible Ike's Rap II - sampled by both Portishead and Tricky in 1995 with amazing results.
Finally, the groove of Good Love can't be beat.




Saturday, November 10, 2012

Aja Live: The Darcys On The Dark Side

Shine up the battle apple...Strike at the stroke of midnight...lay down the law and break it. These tough, hard bitten lines from Steely Dan's Josie have never sounded bleaker than when crooned by Jason Couse of The Darcys at the end of their set at Mercury Lounge last Tuesday night. Drummer Wes Marskell had left the stage and Jason, guitarist Michael le Riche and bassist Dave Hurlow created a backdrop that was rich and at the same time skeletal. The original Josie, which closes out Steely Dan's multi-platinum album, is almost a romp, bringing the implicit funk to the forefront and spinning a tale of a hellcat's riotous return. Hearing The Darcys take, I wasn't so sure I wanted to be around when Josie comes home.

Jason Couse
Covering Steely Dan is a bit of a fool's game. Few have tried and many who have get caught up in the virtuosity of the playing, leading to dreck like The Hoops McCann Band. As Jason put it to me after the show, "You can't make it better, so you have to make it different." That iconoclastic approach makes their version of Aja a complete success. Instead of getting lost in the fiddly bits of Becker and Fagen's rigorous pursuit of perfection, the four-man group from Toronto instead lose themselves in the dark tales and shady characters at the heart of this classic album.

Having enjoyed the album since its release earlier this year (the free download is available here), I leapt at the opportunity to see them perform it live. What I wasn't expecting was that the band would play nearly as fast and loose with their own version of Aja as they had with the original. Instrumental passages grew longer, sometimes launching into the ether, and there was a sense that they were still finding new crevices to explore in the songs. It was facinating to watch how carefully they were listening to each other, which is likely what kept the thing from going off the rails.

Michael le Riche
They obviously love Aja and know every nuance of it well enough that they can supercharge it or strip it down section by section. Jason told me that the deconstructive process of making the album was now informing their work on their own material. "We're more likely to take a song apart completely and put it back together," he said, "and we listen to each other more." His excitement about the three songs they've completed so far was contagious.

Their ability to continue to play around with Aja made the concert a thrilling experience, with the 35 year old songs sounding white hot, as if they had just been written. They took the stage wordlessly and slammed through Black Cow and Aja without coming up for air. Deacon Blues, with its unsettled rhythm, came next, and it was another case of Becker & Fagen's film-noir themes meshing perfectly with The Darcys approach. Peg still holds its place as the brightest song in the set, although the fast tempo and Michael le Riche's nearly punk guitar lent it an urgency that bordered on desperation. Le Riche's guitar deserves special mention overall. Through his use of effects, some of which he built himself, he has developed one of the most distinctive guitar sounds going, a sort of serrated yet sleek sound that is surprisingly versatile. It is equally well suited to the fine songs on The Darcys self-titled debut, released last year and also available as a free download.

The pedals of le Riche.
Dave Hurlow
Wes Marskell
Home At Last has the band drawing the most from the original, with Hurlow's rock-solid bass anchoring the "tired sea song" in much the same way Chuck Rainey did on Steely Dan's version, but it still sounds completely fresh. Instead of being frisky, I Got The News was almost introverted, like an inner monologue. As it ended, Marskell walked off (to run the merch table, it turned out) and we were treated to the horror-show apotheosis of Josie. Almost before the last notes faded away, the band left the stage and it was over. No encores. It was a scorched earth move which meshed perfectly with their dark take on Aja. As the crowd broke up, I was ready to break out the hats and hooters. Kudos to The Darcys for making this monolithic song cycle completely their own, first in the studio and again on stage.

For openers we heard Mexican rock band Rey Pila, who brought some intriguing hints of Bill Nelson and early Simple Minds to their colorful sound. Two things really stuck out as needing improvement, however. First of all, in a five-piece band, having no back-up vocals is a huge missed opportunity. The bassist and/or guitarists chiming in on the choruses and bridges would have obviated the singer's need to go all emo at those points in many songs. Even if none of the other guys can sing, he may want to look into the virtues of restraint as his voice sounded much better when he wasn't over-doing it.


 

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Beatles Thing

"But the Beatles thing is over," Paul McCartney declared in a Life Magazine interview 44 years ago this week. While it was not the official notice of the end, careful readers would have taken note of the finality of his statement and been seriously concerned. And it was true - privately the Fab Four had already determined that they would no longer continue as a group. But the Beatle thing is never really over, is it? Here's some thoughts on why that might be.

I can understand how easy it is to take The Beatles for granted. After all, my mom used to wake me up with a 45 of I Want To Hold Your Hand, which puts them very nearly at the earliest point of my nurture - close enough that I now consider them part of my nature.

Perhaps they are so extraordinary that's it's easier to see them as part of the furniture, so to speak, than to try to grapple with what they really achieved. "The blues is a chair," John Lennon said, so he knew something about music as furniture, but unlike the blues, the universe of The Beatles was essentially created by four very young men who followed their (both creative and commercial) muses never suspecting - at least not until the end - that they were essentially creating a one-band genre.

A defining feature of that genre is that anything went - add a string quartet, put the tape on backward, strip it back to naked human anguish, get silly, sing in French, make a collage, base your lyrics on a poster or a box of chocolates or the Tibetan book of the dead, get angry, write songs, get folky, sing other people's songs, etc. That's why I always say you can use the Fab Four to get exposed to nearly everything music can do. Listening to their music can be the start of a love affair with music, one that the listener can pursue down countless avenues. "I like the way that song makes me feel - where else can I find that?"

This far along from their demise, people are still trying to parse The Beatles, to see where they fit alongside other musicians and separate the strands of what made them work. "How good were The Beatles as lyricists?" or "Where does George Harrison rank as a guitarist?" are typical starting points for articles or blog posts. In the first example, if you examine the lyrics in the cold light of the dissection table, you might find some of them wanting. Not as deep as Dylan, or as clever as The Kinks or The Who, or as dark as The Doors or The Rolling Stones - to name only some of their contemporaries. As for the second example, while his style is quite distinctive and his technique excellent, I wouldn't put George in my top five guitarists.

But the point is, they can't really be parsed. It was the hydra-headed foursome of them that made it all work and the unified quality of their output that astonishes. There is much we know now about the interpersonal difficulties they had, but that just makes it all the more remarkable. More than any other band, it is impossible to imagine The Beatles doing what they did with anybody other than John, Paul, George and Ringo. The dream of human unity - always just out of reach - is exemplified by their remarkable music. Even photographs of the four of them are inspiring.

"Not liking The Beatles is like not liking the sun," someone once wrote in Rolling Stone. While I believe that it takes all kinds to make a world, part of me agrees with that statement and maintains a mild suspicion of those who say flat out "I don't like The Beatles." Then again, being jaded by them might be worse, so dust off that musical furniture and try to listen to The Beatles as if you've never heard them before.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Elliott Carter: Century's End


Thinking about the extraordinary life and career of Elliott Carter, who died today a month shy of his 104th birthday, I'm humbled by all I do not know about his music - and all of his music I have yet to discover. I can say that The Minotaur (1945) is a great piece of theatrical music, lively and knotty like Stravinsky can be, adding layers of 20th century psychologizing to the ancient tale. I can certainly point to Night Fantasies (1980) as one of the definitive 20th century piano pieces. His string quartets are a fascinating tangle that are forever fresh at each listen.

I have always been a fan of percussion pieces (Nonesuch's collection was a seminal album for me) so I was delighted to discover Tintinnabulation back in 2010, when my daughter (then 11) and I made our first foray to Tanglewood for their Sunday morning chamber concerts. It turned out to be a great work for six percussionists, which displayed Carter's deep engagement with the percussion repertoire, and with the materials the instruments were made of. In the program notes he remarked that he made sure not to include anything, like marimba, that could add a touch of melody. This was about surfaces being struck. Percussion.

The crowd responded with quite an ovation, which only grew louder when Carter himself stood to acknowledge it. That was a nice surprise for my me and my daughter. Carter then sat down and enjoyed the rest of the concert, alert and involved at the age of 101.

Here's an excellent performance of Tintinnabulation. And there are hundreds more works to discover.

Elliot Carter - Tintinnabulation from Charles Martin on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pere Ubu: Rulers of 1978

Although much of the world may have been unaware, Pere Ubu ruled 1978. They released their first two albums that year - The Modern Dance in January and, 34 years ago next week, Dub Housing, the astonishing follow up. They shared some characteristics with the Talking Heads, although they never had the improbable commercial success David Byrne and company enjoyed. Even so Pere Ubu have a firm place in the galaxy of what is often called post-punk and their first three albums are some of my favorite music ever. Here are some of the reasons why.

Named after the title character in Alfred Jarry's surrealist play, Ubu Roi, this band of avant garde misfits arose from the toxic industrial landscape of Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-70's. They didn't entirely reject the foundations of rock, but they warped them and folded them into their own twisted vision that included free jazz, dub reggae, musique concrete and lyrical preoccupations that were sometimes psychologically intense, and sometimes playful.

In addition to guitar, bass and drums (played by Tom Herman, Tim Wright and Scott Krauss), their line up included an EML modular synthesizer, played by Allen Ravenstine, one of the most original musicians of that or any era. Rather than use his electronic gear to imitate other instruments like horns or strings, he created purely electronic sounds which appear throughout the songs.


The drawing depicts David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, and one of the most courageous artists to enter a recording studio. Sometimes I think courage is the number one qualification for rock and roll. Think of the rogues gallery of outcasts and potential losers that have brought so much music into our lives. Where was the place for them before 1955? David Thomas was a hefty guy with a doughy face, exploding hair and a voice that was strangled, guttural and occasionally akin to that of Jackie Gleason's character Reginald Van Gleason III.

The music he and his compatriots came up with was often challenging at first listen but thrilling if you allowed yourself to buy in to what they were doing. I was well along for the ride when it struck me: this guy has GUTS. To put himself out there with no compromise, just as he is, take it or leave it - that takes courage. He was a riveting presence both on stage and record and had the band to match. While I haven't always gone along with all of his directions, either in Pere Ubu or solo, all these years later I still take inspiration from David Thomas's example. So give a listen to the opening cuts from those two landmark albums they released in 1978 and take a look at a wonderfully unhinged performance of a much later song. Maybe Pere Ubu will help you find courage when you need it.

 

 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Listening To LUX on West 57th

"It's just like Music For Airports, innit?" the suave man with the leather jacket, the expensive camera and the British accent was saying. We were all on our way out of the somewhat nondescript Church of All Nations on West 57th Street, having just spent the past 80 minutes or so listening to Brian Eno's LUX at an invitation-only listening event courtesy of Warp Records. 

Perhaps Mr. Brit Suave was right, but only in a superficial sense. LUX, essentially an album length composition in four parts (though it felt continuous), is based on a work Eno created for the Great Gallery of La Venaria in Turin, Italy, and makes explicit reference to Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror (with Harold Budd), Ambient 4: On Land, Neroli, and Thursday Afternoon. But it is in no way "just like" any of these. While it occupies the same universe of what Eno termed Ambient Music, LUX is it's own discreet (yes) planet. 


I can't say for sure why Warp chose to hold these listening sessions here and England, but I respect their effort to engage people outside of the music criticism complex, such as it is, and was grateful for the opportunity to step in off the sidewalk of my life and just listen. Naturally, I took some notes as the music unspooled from the nave of the church. 


A series of tones, dropped, continuing then fading out, but not before new tones overlap. Piano? Violins? Something synthetic? Possibly all three. A major key feel, but calming and contemplative, very much in the mold of the early ambient works. Harold Budd is present, if only in theory and mood. About five minutes in, melodies and repeating motifs begin to emerge, along with a sense of foreground and background. It's like watching a painting take shape, or a time lapse of natural phenomena, such as ripples on a pond or crystals forming.


Around the ten minute mark, some new sounds make their entrance, sharper sounds, and then what is definitely a guitar (actually "Moog Guitar," played by Leo Abrahams) takes over part of the foreground. Eventually, echoes and reverb become the source of repetition and the mood gradually darkens - but only for a moment. 
One wonders if there is science or theory behind the structure of the piece as a whole, or in the way one note follows another. At the same time, it all flows beautifully and feels quite organic. 


Forty or so minutes in, there are more patterns, quieting the part of the mind that seeks to organize what it hears, but gradually the piece returns to sound following sound. Then you realize that these actually comprise larger sections and that they are alternating, creating a much larger pattern. Over an hour after it began, Lux continues and, while it would be easy to drift off, it is also easy to remain engaged. Near the end, Eno makes some moves that, in the context of an ambient work, could be called dramatic. More dynamics, patterns overlaying patterns, possibly guitar feedback reminiscent of Robert Fripp's work on Evening Star. Then it fades out, ending, as a car horn blares from outside. 


The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Mr. Suave was wrong. Music For Airports is a classic and groundbreaking recording, but as a composition it is far less assured and sophisticated than LUX. Much of Airports relies on easy, Satie-esque melodies that comfort the casual listener. As such, it is an excellent introduction to Eno's sound world, like a well-appointed foyer, but it is certainly not the whole house. LUX is a gorgeous, lush new addition to the magnificent manor of Eno's ambient works and a room I look forward to visiting again. 


In North America, LUX is released on CD and download on November 13, and vinyl on December 10.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Brian Eno


Word has come down that Lux, a new Brian Eno album, will be released on November 13. This will be his third on the seminal Warp label, and his first solo effort since 2005. Small Craft On A Milk Sea, a collaboration with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams from 2010, was nearly a return to form, as far as his instrumental music is concerned. Last year’s Drums Between The Bells saw him working with poet Rick Holland in a spoken-word format that didn’t quite take off. But I have high hopes for Lux based on the pure conjecture that he’s feeling the heat from his label-mate Flying Lotus, whose brilliant Until The Quiet Comes is the best electronic release of 2012. On the eve of Lux, here are some thoughts on Eno and his music.

I remember reading an interview with Eno in the early 80′s (in late, lamented Musician magazine), where he described spending time in Africa and how he would sit outside with his headphones on, listening to his Walkman as it recorded the night sounds of the jungle. Then there was a little note that said: [Why not just take the headphones off? - ed.] The answer to that question is simple: because then he wouldn’t be Eno. The idea of filtering – thoughts, sounds, perceptions, even the creative process itself – in central to Eno’s method. He’s been credited on some albums with one word: treatments, which kind of says it all.

He first came to my attention through his work with the Talking Heads, where his production was obviously central to their transfiguration from nerved-up bubblegum pop to floor-filling funk avatars. Remain In Light was the pinnacle of that collaboration and its creation was preceded by his record with David Byrne called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Thirty years later, its mixture of art-rock grooves with recordings of preachers, mystics and recordings from other cultures is still stunning.

Notice taken, I bought a box set called Working Backwards, 1973 – 1983, and did just that. What a body of work! Simultaneously while making signature records like Here Come The Warm Jets (with it’s perennial show-stopper Baby’s On Fire) and Another Green World (with the ultra-charming I’ll Come Running (To Tie Your Shoes), he found time to invent a new genre, Ambient Music. The idea was to create a sort of good Muzak, sounds that could be in the background, but that were interesting enough so that you could turn your attention to them if you so desired. I’m not sure if his Music For Airports was ever played in an airport, but it has had a second life as an orchestral concert work.

Speaking of second lives, while Eno’s work with the Talking Heads and David Bowie (Low, Heroes, Lodger) was legendary, none of us fans could have predicted what would happen when he starting working with a scrappy band of Irishmen called U2. Globe-dominating success followed, along with the fact that the formerly glammed up co-founder of Roxy Music would never have to work again. But work he did, continuing with U2 and moving on to Coldplay. I’m no fan of either of these bands but it is heartening to see Eno get his due.

Since he became a mega-producer, he’s released a few good records, most notably Wrong Way Up and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, collaborations with John Cale and David Byrne, respectively. His original run of albums is forever undeniable and should stand as his ultimate achievement, along with his radical work on the first two Roxy albums. When it came to the ambient records, he often liked to put little diagrams on the back, explanations of how the music was made, or instructions for how to maximize the listening experience. Once, when my parents were away, I took one of their speakers and wired it into my stereo to make the tri-phonic set-up described on the back of Ambient 4: On Land. I put the needle down, sat in my chair and…something happened. I think I went into a spontaneous hypnotic state, which continued until the side ended. It was an amazing experience and par for the course when you’re a fan of the man born Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno!





Saturday, October 13, 2012

Matthew Silberman: Unquestionably Good



One of the pleasures of the age we live in, at least for music fans, is the ability to connect to artists on a more personal level. Following Prodigy of Mobb Deep on Instagram, for example, has given me a window on his wicked sense of humor - not something usually found in his music. In the case of Breton, social media gave us an entree to have friendships IRL. Through that experience I realized how much I enjoyed being with musicians - they're the ones who are going be as passionate about music and how it works as I am. Having those kinds of rich interactions has been rarer since my high school and college days, when I played in bands, DJ'd, and had two hour phone calls about James Brown.

So, Matthew Silberman. I met him at an old friend's birthday party - they're cousins by marriage - and we hit it off. He plays the sax and is a true music fan. Over the last few months I've kept in touch with him via Facebook (and the occasional Scrabble game - he's bloody good) and watched as he's shared the process of creating his first album, Questionable Creatures. Now available, the record is alternately thorny, funky and lyrical, and displays Matt's noirish take on jazz. It's a fully contemporary affair with none of the academic flavor that sinks some current music in the genre.

The opening cut, Ghost of The Prairie, starts up with a low-end groove and nasty guitar before Matt enters with one of his typically insistent themes. His slightly pinched tone is already distinctive, which can be half the battle in trying to say something new in jazz. That he has a composer's vision is also immediately apparent. Christopher Tordini's bass can often be found playing a repeating riff, as opposed to walking the changes, and the use of two guitars gives him an unusual palette to work with. Ryan Ferreira's guitar sometimes creates shimmering washes of sound and sometimes searing leads, while Greg Ruggiero plays with a more "jazzy' tone, either chording the accompaniment or taking brief, melodic solos.

Mrs. Heimoff, the second piece, is cheerful enough, but shaded with ambiguity, and the third, Breathe, is yearning and lyrical and taken at a daringly slow tempo. The Battle At Dawn is a restless bossa and the title track an off-kilter waltz with spectacular playing by Ferreira. I particularly dig his terse and serrated playing behind the sax when the theme returns near the end of the song. Dream Machine is a splashy, languorous affair, with exemplary work by drummer Tommy Crane, who shines throughout. The Process is sprightly and a bit spiky, before the guitars stretch out in a meditative duet. The sensitivity of the rhythm section here is remarkable, alternately driving the bus or being pulled along the snaking trajectory of the tune.

The Pharoah's Tomb closes the album on an uptempo and, at times, almost aggressive note. Ferreira's slashing chords dominate the theme and there are strong solos from him and Silberman. Questionable Creatures is an accomplished and exciting showcase for Matt's playing and writing and also the first release from DeSoto, his multimedia company. You can buy the album or stream it free from their site.

In September, I went to Shapeshifter Lab, a performance space the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, for his album release party. His band was in top form and the strong structure of his compositions shone through, with sometimes explosive improvisational sections bringing significant heat. Desoto has produced short films to accompany two songs on the album; in concert they played along with projections, which was a lot of fun.

Matt is definitely one to watch - his dedication to his craft coupled with his strong artistic vision will surely bring more great music into the world. Plus he's a nice guy and I look forward to getting to know him better (and beating him at Scrabble - the moves have been few and far between since my last Bingo!).

Take a look at the phantasmagorical short film for the title track of Questionable Creatures.



Thursday, October 11, 2012

Buddy Holly.

Is there ever a bad time to talk about Buddy Holly? Someone recently asked me who my favorite rock & roller of the 50's was, so now is as good a time as any.

In the late 70's I went through a spate of reading Anne Tyler books (didn't everybody?). One had a resonant image of a character, after a traumatic event, carrying themselves as if their head were an overfilled glass of milk. For some reason, I feel this way about Buddy Holly's music - as if his tragically attenuated career led to a small body of work that is easily containable - like a glass of milk - and I don't want to spill a drop.

On the other hand, that body of work is what I consider bedrock music. The songs are so perfectly constructed, the performances so natural, that they can be seen as nearly indivisible essences, like subatomic particles. This is one reason why covers of his songs are almost always disappointing. One of the best versions is The Beatles take on Words of Love, mainly because it's the most precise. That elemental power is also why listening to him, even the ballads, is so energizing. Not bad for barely four years of professional work.

Finally a word about influence. The self-contained unit of Buddy Holly & The Crickets set the template for much of what was to come (and inspired the name "The Beatles"). As Lou Reed put it, "You can't beat two guitars, bass, drums." He might have added that you can't beat having a great songwriter in the band. What would the 60's sound like if Buddy hadn't arrived at the precise moment he did? Perhaps John and Paul wouldn't have seen the need for George - or vice versa. Imagine that.

Here's one favorite:




My wife and I had the words to True Love Ways read aloud as part of our wedding ceremony: 

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Brooklyn Flea Record Fair


Why go to a record fair? Everything's available, everything's free, the album is dead, blah, blah, blah. Everyone's so busy trying to be the one to predict the future maybe they've lost touch with how music lovers actually live their lives.

The Brooklyn Record Fair (located at the fabulous Smorgasburg) is the kind of event you come to to meet other fans, connect with the good folks at record labels like Merge, Domino, Warp, Mexican Summer, etc., and, most of all, stimulate new pathways in your mind to find great music. Instead of pontificating further, here's a quick rundown of what I bought today and why.

The Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits (2012): As I told the good people of Merge Records, I was initially cool on this Britt Daniel (of Spoon) side-project. The first song out was one of the Dan Boeckner (from Wolf Parade - I was never a fan) numbers and it's electro-pop leanings rubbed me the wrong way. Britt's brilliant Would That Not Be Nice was another story, however, and led me to listen repeatedly on Spotify. It's really grown on me - even the Boeckner contributions - and is a damned good record, with kudos due to the keyboard player Alex Fischel and producer Nick Launay, who cut his teeth with PIL, Killing Joke, The Slits and Gang of Four, for the beautiful electronic sonics. Looking forward to spinning the vinyl and hearing it in its full glory.

Hospitality - The Drift/Monkey 7" (2012): Their album is one of the delights of the year; why wouldn't I want two new songs from them? I also appreciate the included download code - Merge knows how people listen. Thanks for the free Telekinesis single, too!

After Merge, I hit a couple of used record vendors. I've flipped through 1000's of records in my life and use a very speedy technique. The encyclopedia of album covers in my head allows me to stop only when I see something unfamiliar, or something I'm looking for specifically. I only need the barest hint of typography, photo or illustration to recognize something so it might seem like I'm not even looking. While the records flip by a mental radio station starts up, playing samples of almost everything I see, for better or worse. It's a very relaxing activity for me, not least because it is focused entirely on music.

The Eleventh Hour - Hollywood Hot (1975): The guys from Greenpoint's own CO-OP 87 were having a blowout sale - $2 a pop for LP's and 12 inches - so I took a chance on this. It's a Bob Crewe vanity project, but he wrote Lady Marmalade (with Kenny Nolan) and much else besides, so he's entitled to it. Also, Cindy Bullens is all over the thing, writing, singing and playing guitar. I have an affection for her since she bravely chronicled her grief after the death of her daughter on Somewhere Between Heaven And Earth (1999, also the year my son died). She's a music biz lifer who's worked with everyone from Elton John to Lucinda Williams. I'm curious to hear Crewe's own take on the Labelle smash, plus it's on 20th Century Records, Barry White's label!

Jose Feliciano - Souled (1968): I heard this in a record store in Hudson, NY at the end of the summer and figured I could just get it on eMusic or listen on Spotify. Turns out that his million-selling catalog is a mess and this album was nowhere to be found. I can stop kicking myself now. Feliciano has mainly been a source of amusement for me (Feliz Navidad, anyone?), but I was sold on Souled by the gorgeous rendition of Nilsson's great Sleep Late, My Lady Friend. The fact that it also has Hi-Heel Sneakers on it was the final clincher.

Gwen McRae - Rockin' Chair (1975): Background vocals by Betty Wright, George McRae and H.W. Casey? That's some serious disco-funk-soul royalty right there! I've always loved that naive and sunny TK Miami disco sound (Rock The Boat, Get Down Tonight, etc.), but I admit to whipping out my phone and checking the AllMusic app (four stars) before laying down my $3.

My last foray into the used realm was with a guy named Robert Schaad who I probably rubbed elbows with at St. Mark's Sounds back in the day. Lots of Roxy Music and Bowie - and Bill Nelson, an old favorite of mine currently somewhat neglected by the culture. A real find was his Furniture Music 45 (1979), which has two non-LP b-sides from his new wave-ish Red Noise project. Pere Ubu singles are also hard to come by so I was glad to pick up one for The Fabulous Sequel (1979), which also has two extra songs on the flip.

Peaking Lights - Lucifer (2012): I still get a little thrill buying cassettes in this day and age and this is has already been a Spotify regular for me so I grabbed it. This is spacey and dubbed out stuff but with a slightly rough-hewn feel that is very appealing. Co-Leader Aaron Coyes has some great playlists on Spotify - it's almost like he's been in my head - so I'm not surprised I like his music. The rep from Mexican Summer graciously agreed to email me a download code and links to some more playlists by the band.


Flying Lotus & Thundercat checking out
a fan's bass
Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes (2012): FlyLo, aka Steve Ellison, has been on the periphery of my radar for a while but I somehow had trouble finding the space and time to evaluate what he was doing. When the buzz for this album began building I went back and gave his previous collection, Cosmogramma, another listen and was amazed. Featuring sumptuous synthetic textures parlayed with a DJ's gift for sequencing and dynamics, the world of Flying Lotus has tentacles in hip hop, R'n'B, and electronic music while being completely its own thing. Imagine a commingling of Raymond Scott and J.Dilla to start to get an idea of his sound. The man himself was in residency at the Warp Records table in the afternoon, relaxed in the scrum surrounding him and very agreeably signing stuff and taking pictures. I told him I was considering having him sign my Gwen McRae album and he laughed and unleashed his dazzling smile - you ain't going to have that experience trolling the Internet for free music.

Ellison happens to be the nephew of Alice Coltrane and earlier in the day I had seen one of her rarer records for sale. I said to the vendor, "Hey, Flying Lotus is going to be here later - maybe he'll want to buy this!" The blank stare I received from him and his fellow sellers was a stark reminder that all of us at the Brooklyn Record Fair were on our own trajectories though the universe of music. We might cross paths in one orbit or another, communing at a concert, sharing online, or elbow to elbow in front of a bin of records, but we ultimately make the journey alone. A record fair is one place we can be alone together.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Marc Bolan

September 30th was Marc Bolan's birthday; he would have been 65. 

Like most Americans, I was under the impression that Marc Bolan was responsible for only two great songs: Get It On (Bang A Gong) and Jeepster. But I had hints along the way that more was going on: Bauhaus covering Telegram Sam and The Bongos covering Mambo Sun, for example. And there was that strange and wonderful record I found in my brother's room called A Beard Of Stars, featuring Bolan's earlier incarnation, Tyrannosaurus Rex. When I asked him about it, he told me it was .99 cents in the remainder bin so he picked it up, but he didn't listen to it much. I dug the Hendrixian guitar and the way it contrasted with the airy-fairy lyrics and wacky vocals. My brother also had Electric Warrior, the album with the two American hits and it turned out to be terrific. The final song Rip Off was a staggeringly concise indictment of the curdled end of the 60's: "Rockin' in the nude, feelin' such a dude, it's a rip off!" Clearly the guy had unexplored depths, but I didn't go much further at the time. I found a single with the two big songs and was satisfied with that for a while. In any case, much of his work was out of print.

The CD era changed everything and I took note when t the BMG club offered T.Rex's Greatest Hits A's & B's in their catalog. "They had more hits?" I thought as I copied the number on the little card and mailed it off. Indeed - I soon learned about Trextasy and the massive success he and the band had in Britain in the early 70's, during which time he was anointed by none other than Ringo Starr, who directed a film about him.

The singles disc was a revelation. He had a formula, some of the time, but what a great sound. (I had a friend who once said, "Bo Diddley only wrote one song, but it was a good song.") Bold, yet charmingly tossed off riffs, glistening melodic guitar solos, a sizzling rhythm section, gorgeous strings, and those vocals - alternately fey, masculine, sexy and childlike, and sometimes all those things at once. I was lucky to get into Bolan and T.Rex just when a series of beautiful deluxe reissues were coming out - more revelations. Even when the hits slowed down, he was still making fascinating music and, while there were certainly misfires, more often than not the music was great. The home demos proved that his songs were solid as hell and that no one rocked harder with just an out of tune acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

When my son was being treated for cancer, I was grateful to have a ton of Bolan on my iPod. He lifted my spirits, and my connection to him grew deeper. I gained access to his own sadness, and felt I understood how it motivated him to meet it head on, with shouted backing vocals, manic bongos and a beat to drive your lizard leather boot heel right through the floorboards. Bolan got me through a lot of tough times, something I discussed on WNYC's Soundcheck in 2005.

About those boots - his outrageous attire and the whole glam rock element is certainly part of his appeal, but tended to pigeonhole him. So I take it with a grain of salt - fun, but far from the whole story. When glam faded he did a little time in the wilderness. Two years before Bowie's Young Americans, the world wasn't ready for his soulful new direction, nor his relationship with the extravagant singer Gloria Jones (the original singer of Tainted Love in 1965), who inspired it.

But in 1977, the year of his death, he was resurgent. He delivered two great singles, Dandy In The Underworld and Celebrate Summer, and a decent album. Lionized by the early punk bands, he proved to be a great spotter of new talent, writing excellent record reviews and including up and coming bands on his TV show, simply called MARC. That show was also the site of one of the most frustrating and tantalizing performances of the 70's, when he and his old friend and rival David Bowie collaborated on a song. It started off so well, a sleek boogie that really is halfway between their styles. About a minute into the song, Bolan slipped off the stage, ruining the take. Because Bowie had taken so long perfecting his performance of "Heroes" earlier in the show, the union workers on the crew wouldn't tolerate spending any more time on it. Like Bolan's career, the song was left unfinished when he died in a car accident 9 days later. He was two weeks from his 30th birthday.


Fortunately, his reputation has stabilized after those years of out-of-print ignominy. Each year brings more movies and TV shows that use Bolan's music and he is recognized for being one of the most influential artists in rock history. While he remains out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he'll always be in my personal pantheon of the greats.

Tony Visconti, who produced much of Bolan's work (and a good bit of Bowie's) called him the most charismatic performer he ever worked with:



A great song that should have been a single:


Bowie & Bolan on MARC:


A bit of mythologized autobiography:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sail On, Bob

It's a good thing Bob Dylan doesn't care if anyone likes his records. If you think about it, it's hard to imagine an artist with less of a chance of getting a fair shake. Now, hold on - I know what you're gonna say: he's a legend, people are going to say they love it no matter what. But is blind obeisance a fair shake? And those whose knees jerk that it's not as good as his 60's work - are they really listening? In my own case, the first listen to a new album from Zimmy can be a angst-ridden affair. Somewhat recent masterpieces like Time Out Of Mind and "Love and Theft" (not to mention the many classics from his past) have brought so much pleasure into my life and I want nothing more than to have the new one join them. It's almost too much for any record to bear - thinking about how the voice sounds, if the lyrics are any good, or if the production is too slapdash. Together Through Life, his last album of originals, was that rare thing in Dylan's later career: a merely good album. The production was too slapdash and the lyrics were often just ok. I'm still convinced Robert Hunter, who co-wrote the words to most of the songs, was the main culprit. Dylan doesn't need a co-writer - he has enough help from the ghosts of long-dead poets and songwriters. Together Through Life was a good listen with a couple of excellent songs, but it just didn't get under my skin like the three that preceded it.

The Dylan promotional machine is a fearsome affair, so even before I had heard Tempest, I had received several emails about the record and was aware of the songs Cinemax's Strike Back was using. They sounded pretty good, but that's not the same as being alone in your car, stuck in traffic, and pressing play on your iPod.

Duquesne Whistle started up and I was tense (the traffic wasn't helping), thinking my way through the song: "Wow, his voice is wrecked, but is it too wrecked? And what is it about, are the lyrics interesting? Sounds good, better production for sure, great band - man these guys swing - how about the song structure, was that bridge inevitable or a bit forced, blah, blah, blah..."

What a crappy way to listen to music.

Then the next song, Soon After Midnight, came on and, by god, he's crooning. If the guy in the car next to me on the Grand Central Parkway had looked over at that moment, he would have noticed me visibly relax in my seat. Main thought: "Oh! He can do different things with his voice!" And I spent the rest of the song actually listening to a sweet new-old tin pan alley tune. The rest of the first pass pretty much continued in the same way, over-thinking in alternation with plain listening. When it was over, I thought "Hey, you've got Soon After Midnight, Scarlet Town, then that one where a guy kills another guy and then she kills him and then herself (Tin Angel), Early Roman Kings cooked, the Titanic song was cool, and the John Lennon tribute was really sweet...hey, we've got half, maybe 2/3rds of a great album here!"

That was just the start of my love affair with Tempest. After many listens now, each song strikes me as a potential classic (except for maybe Duquesne Whistle - Robert Hunter again - which is like a light overture). The sense of a master craftsman at the top of his game and fully engaged with his art is palpable throughout the album. The wicked delight he takes in lines like "Set'em up Joe, play "Walkin' The Floor," play it for my flat-chested junkie whore," (from Scarlet Town) or "I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings," (from Early Roman Kings) quickly became my own. And there are stunning lines and gripping tales throughout the songs in the collection.

Granted, when Dylan interfaces with historical events, as on the title track and Roll On John, he comes out with some truly weird things. As far as we know, there were no brothers killing brothers or traitors and turncoats on the Titanic (though we can't be totally sure), and Leonardo Dicaprio was only in the movie. Jim Backus? He's just along for the ride*. But Bob's not writing history here, he's making art. The refrain in Tempest is of a "watchman" who "dreamed the Titanic was sinking" - perhaps that's Dylan himself and the whole song is based on a nightmare after having too much tequila and nachos while watching the Cameron flick. Or he's just creating metaphors to drive home what may be one of the points of the song, that tragic circumstances bring out the best and worst in people. What matter, after the third listen you'll be singing along and salting your Bushmill's with tears.

As for Roll On John, the line "They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth" is definitely unexpected. But it's just more metaphor - even skimming a biography of Lennon would give make it obvious that he felt stifled by being a Beatle and trapped by success. Why shouldn't Dylan include that in a song about his friend? The chorus, however, is perfect: "Shine your light, move it on, you shined so bright, roll on John." Thanks to Dylan's mastery, I now have a painful window on what Lennon's murder felt like to someone who knew him. It's a brave and personal song and I think people will be singing it for a long time, which can said of a number of songs on this wonderful album.

A note about the singing: there are people who think Dylan was never a good singer. The fact is that he is extraordinarily skilled and has only gotten better. His instrument is a shadow of it's former self, like Billie Holiday's was at the end of her career, but his phrasing - the way he elongates or clips words, pushes them into the next word or uses subtle inflections - is better than ever. Listen through the crackle, like on an old record, and there is a textbook of technique here.

Finally, the production. Working under the name Jack Frost, Dylan produced Tempest himself and it's one of his best sounding records. There is the feel of a band in a room playing together, almost casually. But I sense that is a deception, as there is a gleaming richness and depth to everything on the record that is quite beautiful and obviously considered. The band is excellent, with Tony Garnier deserving special mention for his work on acoustic bass. Dylan must like it too, as it is recorded to a fare thee well. The burnished sound is a crucial element to the hypnotic spell Tempest can cast, especially in circular songs like Scarlet Town and Tin Angel.

Even though he doesn't care who likes his albums or not, and has a conflicted relationship with the act of making records in general, I think Dylan took Tempest pretty seriously. When lines like "I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there are secrets in them I can't disguise. Come back baby, if I hurt your feelings, I apologize," are coming, you want to place them in the right setting. Bob knew he had ten good ones and did them proud on Tempest. The rest is up to you. In the words of Dylan himself: "If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday."

*Yes, Bob Dylan watched Gilligan's Island. The tear-jerker of a line is: "Jim Backus smiled, he never learned to swim, saw the little crippled child, and gave his seat to him."