Thursday, October 03, 2019

Record Roundup: Rock Formations

Rock isn’t dead. It’s all around us, shattered into a million pieces, genres and sub-genres too numerous to list. To give a sense of the kaleidoscopic reality, here are quick takes on seven albums representing some of those different shards.

Jay Som - Anak Ko Melina Duterte, who performs and records as Jay Som, made quite a splash in 2017 with Everybody Works, an exceedingly tuneful pop-rock album which had a slick and shiny surface belying its creation in her home studio. Did I mention she played all the instruments, including guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, accordion, and trumpet? A rare talent, indeed, and she has only doubled down on the pleasure principle on Anak Ko, whether on the Can-inflected twists and turns of If You Want It or the breezy strumming of Superbike. The way the latter song ends in a heavily processed guitar solo is one indication that she doesn’t want to limit herself to the dreamier side of things. Melody, emotion, creativity, it’s all here, and if you’re still holding on to summer, put Anak Ko on repeat. 

Mattiel - Satis Factory I may be late to the table - this is Mattiel Brown’s second album - but, man, am I enjoying this kicky feast. With a surprising deep, declamatory voice that’s nearly a bellow, Mattiel sounds like she’s singing down from on high, from the pulpit in the church of rock & roll. Messianic, that’s the word, as she calls you back to the verities of The Doors, Bessie Smith, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and The Crystals. But with sure, sharp, deeply informed backing from her collaborators Jonah Swilley (guitar), Travis Murphy (bass), and Jordan Manley (drums), this is a collection made for these unsatisfactory times. “Did you expect a guarantee/Working in that satis factory?” Mattiel sings in Millionaire - well, no...but I guarantee you’ll be more than satisfied with this killer collection. 

Tool - Fear Inoculum It’s always interesting when a singular band takes a long hiatus. The question becomes whether all the musical water under the bridge since their last appearance will have any effect on their sound. Steely Dan comes to mind - think about all that happened between 1980’s Gaucho and Two Against Nature in 2000: the rise of hip hop, new worlds of electronic music, both dance-oriented and not, new wave, hair metal, grunge - would any of these movements change Becker and Fagen’s sound? Should they? The answer was a firm “negatory,” and rightly so: no one else gave us what they did so their doubling down on crisp production, swaggering horns and bent lyrics was a welcome relief. So it is with Tool, Fear Inoculum coming out of the gate as the Ur-expression of all that made them great. Longer songs, more repetition, increased creativity by the already mega-inventive percussionist, Danny Carey, more varied singing by Maynard James Keenan. The question is not whether they’re living up to their earlier albums but have they made them obsolete? After all, this is a band whose sound quickly matured from whiny alt-metal to something which nearly redefined song structure and the relationships of the instruments in a rock band, so they don’t really owe us more in the form of grand innovations. But Chocolate Chip Trip into 7empest - with some of Adam Jones’ most stinging guitar - may rank with their greatest one-two punches ever - and how many bands can say that over two decades into their career? One that comes to mind is Killing Joke, now 40 years in - and kudos to Tool for bringing the industrial post-punk legends on tour. Long may both of them reign.

Amyl and the Sniffers - Amyl and the Sniffers Another entry in the ongoing inquiry into what exactly is in the water in Australia, as amped up Amy Taylor and her gang of beautiful losers blast out riffs galore, chugging beats like a runaway train, shouty background vocals, and all the glam-punk tropes that should not take flight as they do here. Sometimes it seems only the force of will gets them airborne, like an oil-drenched seagull, but damned if it doesn't work every time. They've also gone about things the right way - grinding it out on their own for a couple of EP's, starting with 2016's Giddy Up, then hooking up with Ross Orton, who gave a new heft to the Arctic Monkeys on 2013's AM. Orton organized and polished their sound - but only just. There's still plenty of chaos to go around within the confines of their blistering yet catchy songs. This is one band I cannot wait to see in concert.

Bon Iver - i,i There is a distance between the recent performances I’ve seen by Justin Vernon (first at Mass MoCA with TU Dance and then at the 37d03d Festival at Pioneer Works) and his work on this album that took a little getting used to. While not as wide as that of Joy Division’s live work and their records, there is an elemental fire that seems slightly banked here. Then there’s also the fact that Hey, Ma, the first single from i,i, has a melody that feels so well-worn that I was concerned it was a remake of an earlier song. 

But it’s only because Vernon has delivered so much emotional richness and sonic innovation over the years that my expectations run so high in the first place. And there’s plenty of both of them here, on what is the most collectively created album in the Bon Iver discography, and one with far more organic textures than 22, A Million, the last album. The stellar contributions of regular band members like percussionist Sean Carey, saxophonist Mike Lewis, guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick, and new guitarist Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak) serve to amplify even the sparely orchestrated moments, giving a sense of muscular weight to even the smallest sounds. This includes Vernon’s voice, an instrument of seemingly unending nuance and perfectly calibrated doses of raw power. It’s him I think of as I welcome these new wonders into my life.

Ex Hex - It’s Real When this band of indie-rock vets, including Mary Timoney (of Helium, Wild Flag, etc.), guitars and vocals, Betsy Wright, bass and vocals, and Laura Harris, drums, put out their first album a few years ago, I enjoyed the stripped down, straightforward rock-for-rock's-sake approach, but only in small doses. This time around, however, they’ve hit the sweet spot over and over - and with dead eyed accuracy. Whether it’s the increased amount of air between the power chords, a little more swing in the rhythm section, or the heightened flamboyance of Timoney’s lead lines, spraying sound around like your hair in a Corvette T-Top going 90, it just sounds like they are having more actual fun, instead of just thinking about it. And you will, too!

Ocean Music - Fan Fiction For Planet Earth This stellar collection showcases the slightly more extroverted side of Richard Aufrichtig, whose Troubadour No. 1, with its quiet majesty and intricate arrangements is my #1 album of 2019 so far. Don’t be fooled by prosaic titles like The Parking Lot Song and The Basement Song - when Aufrichtig and Kevin Schwartzbach's guitars start to soar in the latter you will be lifted. Some of these songs have been around for a while in various evolutions, but here tracks like When I Went To California are at their rhapsodic best. Aufrichtig is always going to make deeply felt, emotionally immersive music and this is his most direct shot to the gut yet. Why wouldn’t you try it?

Tracks from all these albums and many more can be found in this playlist or below. Click the little heart to keep up with what is yet to come - and let me know what I may have missed. 

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Thursday, September 26, 2019

Concert Review: A Braxton Spectacular At Miller

“Music is not just that which happens on stage. Music is part of the vibrations that happen between people.” - Anthony Braxton

There likely would have been a sense of occasion - and a packed house - at the Miller Theatre last Wednesday night no matter whose music was being featured. It was the opening concert of their 20th season of Composer Portraits, an event worthy of celebration even in the abstract. But an evening of music by Anthony Braxton is also not as common as it should be so I welcomed the opportunity for immersion. 

A glance at the program and a read through Lara Pellegrinelli's typically incisive and captivating notes promised a well-conceived evening, moving chronologically from 1968’s Composition No. 1 to Composition No. 358 from 2006. Also, with Either/Or and JACK Quartet involved I knew there would be no question about the excellence of the players. But there was much I didn’t know, as when Melissa Smey revealed that after performing the first three pieces in sequence, the final six works would be played simultaneously. Without understanding exactly how that would work, I settled in, alert to whatever may come. 

Richard Carrick, director of Either/Or, assayed the first piece, which was for solo piano. A fragmented shuffle or palimpsest of lyricism and cacophony, with the barest hint of ragtime, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Knowing that Braxton often uses unconventional notation, I kept an eye on Carrick’s iPad Pro to see what the sheet music promised. The boldest gesture there - a giant black X across several bars - was equally bold on the keyboard as Carrick crossed his hands to continue an especially dazzling run. Some of the big block chords spoke to me as exemplars of the frustration Braxton may have felt in 1968, whether with the state of the world or his need to break free of free jazz. In any case, this fully formed piece draws quite a line in the sand as Braxton’s first numbered composition and promised great things ahead. 

Next up was the JACK taking on Composition No. 17 from 1971, which offers much freedom to the players as far as which part is played by each instrument and for how long. With subtle hand gestures from violist John Pickford Richard to keep them on track, three distinct movements emerged encompassing various levels of wooziness, static, and turbulence. Whether it was the JACK’s approach or built in, there was a sense of structure that was at least adjacent to the string quartet literature making for a very satisfying and adventurous piece. 

Either/Or then took the stage, expanded to 11 players with the addition of two of Braxton’s close collaborators, James Fei (saxophone) and Chris McIntyre (trombone). Both of them, especially the latter, had a lot to do in Composition No. 46, which occasionally mingled Boulezian elegance with suspense straight out of a Lalo Schifrin score. As it went on, I found my mind drifting and wondered if the piece wasn’t a bit aimless. This led to thoughts about what it means for music to have an “aim” in the first place. Was such criticism more about me than about Braxton? Was it actually criticism at all, or just acknowledgement? Before I knew it the piece had ended. 

Then, after a brief reset of the stage, came the piece de la resistance, one of those “only at Miller” blockbuster experiences that will have people saying “I was there” for years - and some of them might be lying. Yes, it was THAT incredible. Either/Or, now boasting a seriously tricked out percussionist, and JACK filled nearly the entire stage and sallied forth into the breach to play (deep breath): Compositions No. 17, 18, 40(O), 101, 168, and 358, spanning 35 years of work from 1971 to 2006. My impressions were as follows:
  • Brawny swagger, led by the reeds and brass, mallets on bongos lending a faint whiff of 50’s “exotica.”
  • Furious flute and bassoon jam (maybe No. 168?) with stunning playing by Margaret Lancaster and Sarah Schoenbeck, respectively. Other sounds faded away. 
  • Most of JACK having a great time, gesticulating with bows, pointing at each other’s music stands to stay focused (unclear if this was staged behavior, especially when they began shouting in unison); cellist Jay Campbell looked miserable for a few minutes, like a teenager forced to play poker with his parents, but soon brightened up. Many glissandi, swooping up and down the necks of their instruments.
  • Cubist strains of Gershwin-esque melodies kept seeking air above the clamor, with a glorious lack of success.
  • James Fei taking command once in a while on alto or soprano sax, the collective blend unable to hide his obvious brilliance.
  • Muted trumpet galore, played beautifully by Jonathan Finlayson, but not the cool, airy Miles Davis mute, more like Louis Armstrong 1920's mute, all sharp commentary.
  • Playful, even pranky at times, with echoes of Joseph Byrd's balloon music, or a Pere Ubu song about walking or feet.
  • Occasionally able to zoom in from the totality and pick out an individual work, like Composition No. 101 (1981) for piano and trombone, Carrick and McIntyre synching up beautifully.
  • Bassist James Ilgenfritz and percussionist Russell Greenberg driving things ever onward, with the latter equally facile on the side drum, the vibes, or those delightful bongos. They had me tapping my toes and dancing in my seat a little.
  • Devolved into insect sounds, everyone seemingly on the same page, making dry, rustling noises, eventually going quiet. The end.
The audience caught their collective breath and then issued forth a long ovation. As we stood, a woman to my left asked if I had heard it before. "No one has," I said, nearly crowing. "Well, you were tapping your fingers..." "It had a pulse," I responded, smiling, "and I reacted accordingly." I'm still not sure if she was annoyed or a little bit jealous. On my way out, I shook Miller director Melissa Smey's hand and congratulated her on a spectacular start to the season. Get to this page to find out what the rest of the series looks like and make a plan to be there.

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

1983: Dancing About Architecture

Note: I went to SUNY Purchase and there came a time when my group of friends decided that an arts school should have an arts magazine, so we created MOA: Magazine of the Arts. My role was as an editor and music critic and I started a column called Dancing About Architecture. This is one of those columns, reproduced here exactly as it was published 36 years ago.

Radio is in a pretty bad state. It's conformist, commercially dependent, and, with few exceptions, blatantly racist.

Among offenders there are degrees: worst is WLIR-FM (92.7), ignoring all but the most homogenized black music. Contemporary Hits Radio (CHR) stations are little better, giving more airplay to black music, but only if it's already making a lot of money. The only stations with integrity are the "Urban" stations (WKTU, WBLS, WRKS, all FM, 92.0, 107.5, and 98.7, respectively), who set their own criteria for what they play, independent of sales.

I'll start with WLIR, the supposed "New Music Station." WLIR's programming policy translates: White/English - YES, Black/American - NO. WLIR justifies its "new" title by playing songs that are a hit in England, while ignoring new American music, especially if it's black. When questioned about the intimated racism of their programming, WLIR directors responded: "We play what fits our format - we play music that's good." One could argue that WLIR is "making a statement" by not giving airplay to "Thriller," but if the issue is quality, why does the station keep "Undercover," the Stones latest, on the air? Evidently, in the language of WLIR, "good" means "not black."

The same thinking informs the 24-hour cable music television channel, MTV. When an MTV executive was asked why his channel did not play more black videos, he replied, "We play rock'n'roll." One might ask then, what is R'n'R? Is it, as the people at WLIR and MTV would have us believe, a rootless dance music played by white people, mainly on synthesizers, exclusive of black performers?

The latest alternative - CHR - offers a definition-by-no-definition: they play anything that is a hit. However their programming policy affections the consistency of their audience (if it has any consistency), CHR stations do at least participate in breaking down racial barriers. For instance, during the time CHR stations were playing Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," WLIR played only Culture Club and wouldn't touch the latter. Of course, CHR's motives in this case were purely profit-oriented, a fact which becomes less relevant when one's concern is getting as large an audience as possible to accept a variety of music. What is relevant is that these stations are very popular. In fact, Z-100 was for several months early this year the Number One station the New York listening area.

The predictable irony is that CHR stations and WLIR suffer from the same problem: across-the-board mediocrity. The fact that the "new music" WLIR plays is on the charts is not a triumph for new music, but rather, a defeat for The Music. There's nothing "new" about Duran Duran that wasn't new about Herman's Hermits. What WLIR has done, simply, is to fool the public into thinking that the same old thing is new - and has done so without taking any risk. There will always be pop, and it will always have its listeners - many, many listeners.

Not every "New Music" station in the past has had such narrow programming. A few years back, WPIX-FM, 101.9 (now playing love songs, nothing but love songs), was one New Music station that dared quite a bit. They played the Specials before they signed with the Chrysalis label and even played the B-52's "Rock Lobster" from a demo tape. WPIX also contributed to the success of lesser known bands like XTC, whose album "Drums and Wires," as a result of continual airplay on WPIX, resulted in that band's largest following ever. The temptation is to conclude that we have entered into a period of musical mediocrity, an error that amounts to "blaming the victim." There is lots of good music now; for example XTC's new album "Mummer," which receives no airplay. The radio stations are at fault.

There are a few innovators, the "Urban Stations" - WKTU, WBLS and WRKS - who play anything, as long as it fits their criteria of quality. The difference between these stations and CHR is that whereas CHR plays what is a hit, Urban stations are a major force in making the hits. This is where the innovations are happening, in so-called "Black Music." As a musician, I find most of the things that catch my ear are on 12" dance singles, like the great, crunchy synthesizer sound in "You've Gotta Believe" by "Love Bug" Starski, or the huge drum sound in Shannon's "Let The Music Play." Not to mention Scratching (rubbing the needle on the record to create literally a scratching sound), which is something really new - using the medium to renew itself, like making a collage out of the Mona Lisa. This is what distinguishes Urban stations from all the others: they act on the music itself - making new mixes, scratches, etc. Some of the D.J.-made hits are so good that they have become airplay hits and are eventually released as records themselves.

What emerges from all this is an essential difference in black and white attitudes towards music. To overgeneralize: blacks view music more as a medium while whites treat it primarily as a commodity. Of course, this hasn't stopped white musicians from borrowing heavily (I'm being kind) from black artists - How many people talked to Bo Diddley before using his beat? - but when it comes to repaying the debt, they can be remarkably selfish. Recently Sugarhill Records approached 99 Records for use of a Liquid Liquid bassline and were refused. When Sugarhill asked if it was possible to buy a percentage of the rights, 99 said flat out "No. We own 100% of the song and we will continue to own 100%." Sugarhill used the bassline anyway (promising royalties to 99) and created a better song - "White Lines,"  by Grandmaster and Melle Mel. White musicians should learn to give a little with all that take - let's face it, they didn't invent the funk.

Despite all this, there is hope. By the sheer quality of the music, Urban Stations are managing to convince other stations what's good. Recently, WLIR picked up "White Lines," making it the first black record to receive steady airplay on that station. Although radio's basic premise is still to reach as large an audience as possible, I believe better radio could be a reality; radio that's less racist and more confident, that can introduce to the American public some really new music. A change like this could only be accompanied by other, bigger changes. The supposedly revived music industry would have to start signing and promoting young, fresh artists, and even, perhaps, using some good, old-fashioned power politics (such as CBS allegedly used to get Michael Jackson's videos on MTV) to get their music played on commercial stations. Musicians would also have to cooperate and try, on both sides, to bridge the still-yawning racial gap. I don't know if this will happen in my lifetime, but I am sure, as an interested party and working musician, that it is up to us to lay the foundations for radio's hopefully brighter future.

(Jeremy Shatan, a junior at the State University of New York at Purchase, plays bass for Susanna and the Elders.)

Susanna and the Elders
(l-r: Andrew Berenyi (Guitar), Joe Leonard (Drums), Verushka (Vocals), Jeremy Shatan (Bass)

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Record Roundup: Past Is Present

The albums described below are all linked by their dialogue between the past and the present. This may come via musical references or inspiration from literature, art, or architecture, all transmuted into something resolutely of our times by the composers and performers alike.

JACK Quartet - Filigree: The Music of Hannah Lash The durability of the string quartet never ceases to amaze me and with artists like Lash and the JACK perpetuating the medium it should be around for centuries to come. The album hits the ground running with Frayed, which brilliantly employs extended techniques to sound like it’s literally coming apart as you listen. Suite: Remembered and Imagined engages with Baroque dance rhythms across its six short movements, using Lash’s inventiveness to remain relentlessly modern. The title of Pulse-Space may make you think of a Pink Floyd outtake, but is instead a threnodic outpouring of pure emotion, with only Lash’s restraint keeping it from neo-romanticism. Inspired by Medieval weaving techniques, Filigree In Textile also features Lash on harp (it was originally performed by her teacher, the great Yolanda Kondonassis, who has a fine recent album of her own) and allows you to add the finishing touches as you assemble the threads in your mind. As expected, the JACK makes all of this sound as natural as breathing and it's hard to imagine a better presentation of this excellent, deeply involving music. 

Wild Up - Christopher Cerrone: The Pieces That Fall to Earth In these three song cycles, Cerrone’s variety of expression is a direct reflection of his laser focus on the words, both their sound and their meaning. It’s easy to hear why he was attracted to the words of Kay Ryan for the title piece as her poems are full of sonic interest. Take Sharks’ Teeth, the fifth of the seven songs in the cycle: “Everything contains some silence,” Ryan wrote, “Noise gets its zest from the small shark’s-tooth shaped fragments of rest angled in it.” Cerrone sets this one with a rhythmic ostinato over which soprano Lindsay Kesselman whispers the words theatrically, letting you turn them over in your mind. The next song, Insult, bursts out of the quiet with rattling bells and tense, jagged strings, supporting one of Kesselman’s tour de force performances, as she manages to hit crescendos just this side of a shriek - appropriate for a song with lines like, “Insult is injury/taken personally/Saying this is not a random fracture that would have happened to any leg out there/This was a conscious unkindness.”

As stunning as the title piece is, for me some of its spike and clangor are on the borderline of the expected. Where the album truly ascends into the ether is in the second cycle, The Naomi Songs, a setting of four poems by Bill Knott sung by Theo Bleckmann in a perfect match of singer and song. Bleckmann brings everything he’s learned over his eclectic career to these sensual, mysterious songs, which blend the haunting drones of ancient troubadour tunes with modern production techniques such that Bleckmann is often duetting with himself. This works most spectacularly in the third song, which intertwines Knott’s two lines (“When our hands are alone, they open, like faces. There is no shore to their opening.”) to mesmerizing effect. In addition to the drones, additional drama comes from pizzicato strings and big piano chords. The Naomi Songs creates its own space wherever you happen to be, whether on a city street, at your sink washing dishes, or in a forest glade. Let it in and let it happen. 

The final work, The Branch Will Not Break, is nearly as wonderful. For this setting of seven poems by the great James Wright, Cerrone uses a small chorus of eight voices (here including Eliza Bagg, who was so fantastic in Alex Weisser’s And All The Days Were Purple) and keeps the harmonic range tight, like early polyphony. This further elevates Wright’s already heightened view of the quotidian, giving marvelous lines like, “In a field of sunlight between two pines/The droppings of last year’s horses/Blaze up into golden stones” a hymnal quality. 

Throughout the album, the musicians of Wild Up, under the direction of Christopher Rountree, meet the varied challenges of Cerrone’s scoring with sensitivity and spirit. Note should also be taken of the warm and involving sound of the record, for which credit is due to Nick Tipp. That his production, engineering, mixing, and mastering is so seamless is even more remarkable when you realize the vocalists and musicians were recorded separately. Great work on all counts and another brick in the edifice of achievement Cerrone has been building for the last several years. 

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - in manus tuas I wonder if they still make viola jokes. If yes, this gorgeous album by Lanzilotti, which engages head and heart in equal measure, should put an end to that branch of humor. Not only does she exhibit a technique that is both furiously virtuosic and fabulously free, but her conception of the album - her debut as a solo performer - is an exemplar of how to create a complete work of art. She achieves this by starting from a neat organizing principle, which is that all the works “are transcriptions or involve the act of transcribing,” as she puts it in her beautifully written liner notes, concluding the thought with this lovely passage: "Transcription enables us to learn from others as well as precess our own thoughts. In doing so, we deepen our understanding of each other. Transcription - empathy - as creative process." 

The boldest example of this may be the last piece, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Transitions (2014), which was originally written for cello and given a definitive performance by its commissioner, Michael Nicolas, on his landmark album of the same name. Before hearing Lanzilotti's version, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to hear any other cellist play it, much less a violist! But she makes it work wonderfully well, illuminating the structure of the work with her musically intelligent transcription and deeply committed playing. Also originally for cello is Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas (2009), which was inspired by the experience of hearing the Thomas Tallis’s motet in a Connecticut church. But there’s no background necessary to immerse yourself in this meditative snapshot’s yearning lines and disordered pizzicato. 

Lanzilotti’s own composition, gray (2017), is next, its startling alarm bell percussion (played by Sarah Mullins) shocking you out of your reverie. Based on a work for dance, this music-only version lacks nothing as the haunting viola lines interact like dark ribbons with the percussive sounds, the latter growing increasingly abstract as the bottom of a snare drum is employed alongside Hawaiian bamboo rattles called pū’ili. External sounds, like the rattling keys of a fellow commuter, fit right in, exposing the Cagean nature of the piece. 

Two works by Andrew Norman fill out the album, with the first, Sonnets (2011) giving Lanzilotti the opportunity to play with masterful pianist Karl Larson and indulge in occasional long lines that are almost romantic. The five short movements draw on fragments of Shakespeare sonnets, seeking to transcribe specific words (or feelings, at least) into sound. The second song, to be so tickled, takes its cue from Sonnet No. 128 and is especially delightful. Sabina (2008-09), the second Norman piece, also originates from a germ of extra-musical information, in this case the way light shines through the translucent stone windows of the Basilica Of Santa Sabina, and spins it into a fascinating web of sound. Even without knowing the visual inspiration, I think Sabina would still create shapes and shades in my mind. It must be treat to see Lanzilotti play it live. Hopefully she will include it - or any of the pieces from this remarkable album - the next time she graces NYC with a performance. 

Tracks from all of these albums, and so many more, can be found in my playlist, AnEarful: Of Note In 2019 (Classical). Click the little heart to keep up with comes out during the rest of the year - and please let me know what I've been missing.

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Monday, August 05, 2019


About 30 years ago a package appeared at my studio door addressed with a familiar chicken-scratch handwriting. I knew it was from Mike D. and within were two CD’s: Derek & The Dominoes’ classic 1970 album Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs and a single-disc compilation called Top Of The Stax: 20 Greatest Hits. There may have been a Post-It Note scrawled Happy Birthday, but I knew what it was for either way.

I turned my nose up at Layla, having been saturated by the title track during my childhood - until I listened. It quickly became a favorite album, a love that continues to this day, although I mainly listen to Derek bootlegs now. Hearing it in context even gave Layla new currency. 

The Stax collection was perhaps even more extraordinary, with not one duff track. I knew a lot of the songs, like Mel & Tim’s Starting All Over Again, Sam and Dave’s Hold On, I’m Coming, The Staple Singers’ Respect Yourself, Green Onions by Booker T & The M.G.’s and, of course, the mighty Shaft by Isaac Hayes. But I hadn’t heard most of them for something like 15 years and what was most amazing was that they operated both at the level of nostalgia and timelessness. As proven out by the other songs, there was a level of quality in songwriting, singing, playing, and production that was perhaps only rivaled by Motown. 

But Stax has that additional grit, with a little more funk to the grooves and real-life adult situations described in songs like I Forgot To Be Your Lover by William Bell and Woman To Woman by Shirley Brown. Top Of The Stax became a daily listen and one of the few albums that needed no adjustments to play at a party. My true love affair with Stax began with that humble collection. 

Over the years I tracked down some of the related albums, like Johnny Taylor’s Tailored In Silk or Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get by The Dramatics. And Isaac Hayes became an obsession, with revelation after revelation from albums like Hot Buttered Soul, To Be Continued and Black Moses, all the way up through his still underrated Polydor years. But when it came to Stax as a whole, I mainly followed the lead of their extensive reissue campaign and focused on the singles, even if they were sometimes packaged up in box sets of impressive weight and size. 

This past June that all changed, however, thanks to a flood of reissued albums celebrating both Black History Month and the 50th Anniversary of the “Soul Explosion” period at the label, which had them rebuilding after the devastating loss of Otis Redding and several member of the Bar-Kays. Many of the albums have been out of print for years in any form and all are appearing on streaming platforms for the first time. While the Soul Explosion took place over a couple of months in 1969, the years spanned by the campaign start in 1968 and stretch all the way to 1975, when the label was shuttered for the first time since 1957. 

While there’s plenty of music among the 30 albums that’s resolutely “on brand” for Stax, there’s enough variety that it makes clear another factor that distinguishes it from Motown: they still believed in older forms of African American music as popular music. While “The Sound Of Young America” certainly had its roots in the blues, gospel and girl group sounds of the 50’s, it was all packaged in bright, shiny new clothes or, by the end of the 60’s, psychedelic mufti. While Stax could go pop or incorporate rock influences, they also persisted in releasing instrumentals and doo wop or church-inflected sounds long after the heyday of those genres. And even if they didn’t hit it big with most of these albums, there is no air of preservation, such as with other labels like Arhoolie or Alligator. The entire history of black music was just in the mix, following the talent they had rather than shunting it into uncomfortable shapes. 

Speaking of mixes, as a public service, I have worked my way through all 30 albums and selected a representative cut from each - with one exception. The most anomalous record in the bunch is also a wretched, festering pile of absolute trash that should have remained in the dustbin of history. I’m speaking of the debut album by the band called The Knowbody Else, who later met with some success as Black Oak Arkansas. While the music is a tepid-at-best attempt at funky southern rock, the vocals by Jim Mangrum are some of the worst singing I have ever heard. Maybe he improved in the BOA days, but I can’t recall one of their songs and I have suffered enough at his hands. I’d rather hear an hour of Johnnie Taylor talking in his sleep. 

Moving right along, the only other qualification was to select a different track if the album contained any hits. So you won’t hear Frederick Knight singing I’ve Been Lonely Too Long, Taylor’s classic Who’s Making Love, or other well-known songs. What I hope you’ll discover is just how strong the bench was at Stax, even if radio or record buyers weren’t always listening in great numbers. Deep cuts, that is, from one of America’s greatest labels, with unsung heroes like Bettye Crutcher coming into focus as bedrock contributors to the catalog. And if a song by an artist you’ve never heard before grabs your attention, by all means check out the album. You may find your respect growing ever greater for the accomplishments of Jim Stewart, Mae Axton, Al Bell, and all the singers, songwriters and players who made this stuff happen. 

Here’s a brief rundown of what you’re going to hear. 

Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy by Booker T. & The M.G.’s from Soul Limbo (1969)

The cheese factor can run a bit high on this album, but on this song it works thanks to the interplay between Steve Cropper’s guitar and Booker T.’s organ. Oft-recorded, the song was written by Ray Whitley working with  J.R. Cobb Of Spooky, Stormy and Atlanta Rhythm Section fame. Even as an instrumental, the title of the song says it all!

Soul-A-Lujah by Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Pervis Staples, Cleotha Staples, Carla Thomas, and Mavis Staples from Boy Meets Girl (Classic Stax Duets) (1969)

This handsome package was well worth the $10 I paid for an original vinyl pressing a few years ago but there’s no denying that it doesn’t quite live up to the excitement generated by the concept. For one thing, the re-recordings of evergreens like I Thank You or Piece Of My Heart have nothing on the originals. For another, the newer songs aren’t very memorable. But this number personifies “exuberance” with a vocal arrangement nearly matching Sly Stone’s ingenuity. Remember the names Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, and Raymond Jackson - they wrote this song and many others under the collective name We Three.

I’ve Got A Feeling by Ollie & The Nightingales from Ollie & The Nightingales (1969)

Formerly The Dixie Nightingales (taking off on The Dixie Hummingbirds), this gospel group led by Ollie Hoskins was straight out of the church and gussied up for prime time. As that would imply, the call and response is key, but Al Jackson, Jr.’s extra sharp drumming drives the bus. A fine album overall, even if it doesn’t touch similarly motivated collections by The Staple Singers. 

Wishes And Dishes by The Sweet Inspirations from Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia (1973)

The tail end of a brand name that launched the careers of Doris Troy, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and Cissy Houston while singing backup for Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix, the group now consisted of Estelle Brown, Myrna Smith, and Sylvia Shemwell. It was up to them to honor the legacy - and they delivered. I think it's Estelle singing lead on this one, bringing a gospel fervor to a slow-burner with adult themes. Producers/co-writers David Porter and Ronnie Williams wisely let the song go beyond the length of a single. The whole album is a worthy slab of sweet 70's soul.

So Nice by The Mad Lads from The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Lads (1969)

"Do you remember when we used to play mommy and daddy each and every day," John Gary Williams sings in his creamy high tenor in a song drenched in soda shoppe fantasies and stacked harmonies. Bettye Crutcher collaborated with Carla Thomas' brother Marvell to write this one and it's definitely the most memorable track on the album.

Come On Back by J.J. Barnes from J.J. Barnes & Steve Mancha: Rare Stamps (1969)

This compilation gathered up singles by Barnes and Mancha, like this one originally released on the Groovesville label in 1967. Co-written by Barnes and Don Davis (who later revived Johnnie Taylor's career with Disco Lady), the vocal bears a striking similarity to Marvin Gaye. So does the arrangement, but the strings and conga make it sound about five years ahead of what Gaye was doing at the same time. Influence is a two-way street...

Somebody's Been Sleeping In My Bed by Johnnie Taylor from Rare Stamps (1969)

Compiling Taylor singles, including Who's Making Love, makes for a great album. This scorching blues from 1967 also has the Bettye Crutcher stamp and a masterful vocal from Taylor. Blues, soul, funk, disco - there was little he couldn't do.

My Baby Specializes by Soul Children from Soul Children (1969)

Formed by Isaac Hayes and David Porter after losing Sam & Dave to Atlantic, it took a while for this vocal group to reach their peak in 1973 with I'll Be The Other Woman. But this album is full of gems, many of them covers of earlier Stax singles like this one originally sung by William Bell & Judy Clay a year earlier. With four effervescent vocalists and a trademark, low-slung Stax arrangement, the song is a heckuva groove.

I've Fallen In Love by Carla Thomas from Memphis Queen (1969)

While her chart success was diminishing a couple of years after B-A-B-Y and Tramp (with Otis Redding), there was no lack of artistic success on this album. Swirling strings introduce this moody number, written by Thomas herself, and her complicated relationship to love is embedded in the bittersweet melody.

Don't Make Me A Storyteller - Steve Mancha from J.J. Barnes & Steve Mancha: Rare Stamps (1969)

Kind of a utility player, Mancha never made an album but based on this track he had a fine way with pleading his way through a song. It was also the definitive version of a song later waxed by many other Stax artists, so all credit due to Mancha.

Jilted by The Goodees from Candy-Coated Goodees (1969)

Strings, electric sitar, epic horns - they threw the kitchen sink at this updated girl group song, a typically adult story about getting pregnant and getting dumped on the altar. Co-written and produced by Don Davis, both the composition and sound reflect the rare intrusion of British psychedelia into the normally all-American world of Stax.

One With Sugar by The Mar-Keys from Damifiknow (1969)

In various incarnations, The Mar-Keys had provided back-up on many Stax sessions while occasionally hitting it big themselves. By this point, they were essentially Booker T. & The M.G.'s plus the Memphis Horns and much of this album is made up of redundant covers of hits like Mustang Sally or Knock On Wood. The track has a nice gutbucket feel, however, and all the cowbell you need.

Now You Got Me Loving You by The Dramatics from A Dramatic Experience (1973)

The Dramatics had been plying their trade since 1964, finally hitting it big with their debut LP,  Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get, in 1971. This follow-up doesn't mess with the sly, proto-disco sonics and is nearly as good. Tony Hester, who wrote In The Rain, also penned this number and produced the album.

Baby It's Real by Rufus Thomas from Crown Prince of Dance (1973)

Carla's father was known for extremely danceable, near-novelty songs like Do The Funky Chicken and Do The Push And Pull, but amongst the pandering tracks on this album (Funky Robot, etc.), this song also proved he could lay you out with a ballad when he wanted to - he should have done more like it!

Don't Mess With My Money, My Honey, or My Woman by Mel & Tim from Starting All Over Again (1972)

This track, which opened up the album that contained one of their biggest hits, has an almost Jackson 5 feel and witty, taunting lyrics. The production, by Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins of Muscle Shoals fame, is slightly more widescreen than the usual Stax sound. 

You Cut Up The Clothes In The Closet My Dreams by Melvin Van Peebles from Don't Play Us Cheap (1972)

The film version of this musical by Van Peebles, known for basically inventing Blaxploitation cinema with Sweet Sweetback's Badassssss Song, was by some reports a misfire. But even bad reviews praised Joshie Jo Armstead's committed performance on this gospel-fueled song, the most well-developed track on this odd album.

Walk Tall (In This Here Land) by John KaSandra from Color Me Human (1970)

Released on Respect, Stax's political offshoot, this album by John S. Anderson is filled with feel-good social criticism/empowerment songs. He's obviously fired up by the smoking-hot arrangement on this song and hearing him dig into the words "Walk tall!" along with the horns is an addictive thrill. While this may be the strongest single song, fans of Joe Tex and Rodriguez should definitely dig into this forgotten treasure.

You Make The Sun Shine by The Temprees from Love Maze (1973)

As impossibly smooth as the Chi-Lites or The Manhattans, this vocal group on Stax's We Produce subsidiary is ripe for rediscovery. There are many pleasures to be found on their second album, but this haunting number, written by Leon Moore, would not get out of my head. Kanye West, who used the song on The Corner by Common, seems to agree. 

Baby, That's A No No by Barbara Lewis from The Many Grooves of Barbara Lewis (1970)

Lewis, who hit the Top 5 with her own composition Hello Stranger (you heard it in Moonlight) in 1963, was already a decade into her career when she recorded this, her only album for Stax. It was also her last album, although she continued performing until 2017. Swathed in echo, her voice sounds flown in from another era on this collection, which is one of the reasons it doesn't quite hit the mark. Also taking on Windmills Of Your Mind after Dusty Springfield was a fool's game for any singer, but this song almost makes you believe she could compete with Aretha or at least Dionne Warwick.

I Could Never Be President by Johnnie Taylor from The Johnnie Taylor Philosophy Continues (1969)

"I could never be President/As long as I'm lovin' you," Taylor sings on this lively number written by We Three. It's just lively enough to make you forget you were hoping he was doing a socially conscious number like Syl Johnson's Is It Because I'm Black? The album has too many covers (It's Your Thing - really, Johnnie?) but goes down fairly easily.

People, Get It Together by Eddie Floyd from California Girl (1970)

Floyd, who co-wrote Knock On Wood with Steve Cropper, was equally at home on either side of the studio glass. In fact, he co-wrote all of the best songs on this long-player (mostly with Booker T.) and gives his all on this inspirational stomper, occasionally sounding like Otis Redding reborn. Floyd is still out there pitching and performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017.

Phases Of Reality by William Bell from Phases Of Reality (1972)

Bell has been recording since 1961, hitting it out of the park with his first single, You Don't Miss Your Water. He won a Grammy two years ago for best Americana album and performed Born Under A Bad Sign - which he wrote! - with Gary Clark, Jr. All this is to say, I shouldn't have been surprised that it was hard to pick just one song from this slab of 70's funk, also produced by Bell. It's easy to imagine Sly nodding his head along to this one. Overall, maybe the best album in the whole campaign.

Let Me Down Easy by Inez Foxx from Inez Foxx At Memphis (1973)

Everyone knows Mockingbird, which Foxx recorded with her brother Charlie in 1963. But that chirpy number is world away from this dark-hued jam, a remake of the 1965 Betty Lavette standard written by Wrecia Holloway and James McDougall - and at least as definitive. Her assured, emotive singing throughout will make you wish this wasn't her only solo album.

It Ain't Easy by The Bar Kays from Do You See What I See (1972)

On tracks like this, The Bar Kays made some of the most convincing 70's music in the Stax catalog. The band, which had to be completely reconfigured after four of their members died alongside Otis Redding in 1967, was now coming hot off of backing Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul and ready to prove themselves as a funky, socially-conscious force to be reckoned with. Let's hope the prior album, Black Rock, is reissued soon.

Harlem Heaven by The Rance Allen Group from A Soulful Experience (1975)

Known mainly for his modernizing influence on gospel, Rance Allen's sweet falsetto perfectly describes a more earthly heaven on this track from a fine album released on Stax's Truth subsidiary. The reggae-influenced arrangement, by Ronnie Williams, who co-wrote the album with David Porter, is as charming as the song. 

If I Give It Up, I Want It Back by David Porter from Victim Of The Joke?...An Opera (1971)

Even though he wrote those dozens of hits alongside Hayes in the 60's, Porter on his own as a frontman was not the same proposition. Full of odd interludes and an ill-conceived cover of The Beatles' Help, the album falls flat as a whole but his belief in the Stax sound of earlier years is almost enough to make you forget that he was stuck in the past. Hayes was already far in the future and would never look back.

I Let My Chance Go By by Frederick Knight from I've Been Lonely For So Long (1973)

The title song outshines the rest of the album, but there's nothing wrong with this regret-soaked ballad and the out-chorus alone is worth the price of admission. Don't feel bad for Knight - he wrote Be For Real and Ring My Bell, both of which have had long lives.

Little Bluebird by Little Milton from Waiting For Little Milton (1973)

When you learn that Little Milton made his name on the Chess label it makes perfect sense that he was as accomplished a guitarist as he was a singer. He had also been honing his chops since 1953! Working in a vein similar to B.B. King (he covers The Thrill Is Gone on this album), he blows out this old Booker T./Hayes/Porter tune into an eloquent and epic blues. 

Soul On Fire by Kim Weston from Kim Kim Kim (1970)

It's hard to understand why this Motown alumnus didn't become another Gloria Gaynor or Thelma Houston after hearing this nearly overwhelming performance of a song she wrote with her husband Mickey Stevenson. The soul was indeed on fire. Unfortunately, however, she didn't make an album for 20 years, skipping the Studio 54 era entirely. Listen to the whole album and imagine what could've been.

Better Get A Move On by Louise McCord from Wattstax: The Living Word (1973)

While any Stax playlist worth its salt should have something by Isaac Hayes or The Staple Singers, both of whom appear on this live album, this absolutely astonishing performance of Bettye Crutcher's song by gospel great McCord just seemed like perfect way to bring things to a close. You will be forgiven if you clap along with the audience!

Let me know what hits the mark for you and visit this site for more info from Stax.

Listen to all the tracks here or below and keep track of other 2019 reissues by following this playlist.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Out Of The Past
Record Roundup: Out Of The Past

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Best Of 2019 (So Far)

These lists are hard because I feel that everything I’ve written about this year is among the best music of our times. And there are also some things I’m sure are excellent but haven’t had the chance to really listen to. To all the composers, musicians, bands, ensembles and labels who have shared their creativity I say, paraphrasing Pusha T and Rick Ross: I got you - hold on. Still, it is undeniably interesting to take stock at the year's halfway point and note either what I’ve listened to a lot but haven’t yet covered or to acknowledge a few very recent releases that have quickly muscled their way into being essential. You’ll see some of both below in a list of the 25 albums that have helped get me through 2019 so far. Enough of my yakking - on with the show!

Note: If I’ve covered the album in a previous post, just click the link to read my thoughts. 

I haven’t yet watched the film Yorke made with Paul Thomas Anderson to accompany this album, but such is the intimacy and intrigue of these tracks that I get the sense that Yorke knows the biggest screen of all is on the interior of our foreheads. While using many of the same lushly minimalist textures as his first two solo albums, there is a warmth and emotional generosity to these songs that feels new, even if rooted in the more plain spoken parts of A Moon Shaped Pool. I would hesitate to call any work by this consummate artist “revealing” but I will say that he’s letting us in on another aspect of his talent and that is more than enough. 

Seeing this young Philly band live at Pioneer Works last month only served to solidify my feelings about how great they are. While their music, full of distorted guitars, shiny synths and driving rhythms can be brainy and fractured, witnessing their utter joy as they bounced around the stage was a minor miracle and helped me connect to that lightness of being on the album. While there are no left turns from their previous releases, there’s also a greater focus on craft when it comes both to the song-like parts and the sparkly excursions into ambience. Right here is the sound of a group hitting its potential across all metrics. Grab on to the album and catch them in concert ASAP. 

In which the boys from Brazil go further down the studio rabbit hole, constructing collage-like tracks that go some distance from their jammed out stage show. But the tunes are still there, maybe a bit buried but characteristically sweet. Following the development of this band has been a true delight and I hope to see how they work with this material live when they hit the rooftop at Industry City on September 4th with Mdou Moctar - a killer bill to end the summer!

Gibbs made hay with Madlib on Piñata in 2014 and nothing he’s done since has hit the same heights  - until now. Something about working with one of the great producers of all time brings out the best in Gibbs, who, instead of deferring to a legend tries to meet him halfway. As Gibbs himself noted: "I feel like you gotta bring your 'A’ game to really shine on his beats, or his beat is going to outshine you. It’s definitely a challenge. You can’t just come any kind of way on these beats, you gotta really make a marriage to ‘em and live with 'em." So, instead of coasting on his grittiness, Gibbs dazzles with a flow that hits a variety of tempos and mixes up the content with political observations and street lit. He shines when he gets personal, too, as in Situations: "1989, I seen a ni**a bleed/Uncle stabbed him in the neck and hit his knees/Turned the arcade to a stampede/I was playin' Pac-Man, Centipede/Put me on some shit I never should've seen." He also has the guts to share the mic on Palmolive with Killer Mike and Pusha-T, who both come loaded for bear, making it one of the great posse cuts of recent memory. I don't know the logistics of the hook-up between Gibbs and Madlib, but I sure hope it happens again because Bandana is a classic.

17. Mark de Clive-Lowe - Heritage and Heritage II 
I will admit to following the career of MdCL for years with admiration for his skills as a keyboard player and producer without being entirely sure exactly what he does. Sure, he was always in the hippest place at the hippest time, but who was he? It all comes into focus on these two extraordinary albums of expansive jazz-funk. The “heritage” referred to is MdCL’s Japanese roots, with each track’s title drawn from cultural reference of importance in his life. Hence we get tracks like Memories of Nanzenji, inspired by a 13th Century temple in Kyoto, and Akatombo (Red Dragonfly), based on a popular folk melody his mother used to sing to him. The music is sometimes spacey and drifting, at other times knotty and propulsive, often building up a head of steam after a moody start. The minor key melodies and overall gloss can't help but remind me of Steely Dan, in a welcome if distant echo. Everything is driven by the sensitive and powerful drumming of Brandon Combs, with strong contributions also coming from Josh Johnson (sax/flute), Teodross Avery (sax), Brandon Eugene Owens (bass), and Carlos Nino (percussion). But MdCL is the star, doing stellar work on all manner of keyboards and composing all the tracks, in a triumph of imagination and sheer musicianship. Now I know exactly who he is and what he does and I can't get enough of it.

18. Elsa Hewitt - Citrus Paradisi

19. Baroness - Gold & Gray
In the four years since the release of their last album, Purple, which found the metal band incorporating a new rhythm section after their bus accident, they have had yet more personnel changes. Peter Adams, who had been their lead guitarist since 2008, left to concentrate on his other band Valkyrie (among other things) and was replaced by Gina Gleason. She's had a checkered career, from Cirque du Soleil to bands that covered Metallica (Misstallica!) and King Diamond. As worrisome as that may sound, she has more than enough grit in her glamour to complement the playing of leader John Baizley while engaging in furious interaction with bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson. She may have also helped push the group to further diversify their already broad palette of sound, adding a cleaner vocal dimension to the harmonies in the process. Whatever the reason, Gold & Gray is the most high-contrast album of their career, with glassy vignettes like Crooked Mile smash-cut into absolutely scorching cuts like Broken Halo. It's a head-spinning journey that feels somehow cleansing, with their most beautiful textures constantly being obliterated by some of their nastiest. While the emotions are always strong, the heart of the album is probably three songs near the middle: Anchor's Lament, Throw Me An Anchor, and I'd Do Anything. Given that the chorus of the last is "I'd do anything to feel alive again," it's obvious the near-death experience of the accident is woven into the core of Baizley's artistic expression forevermore. Whatever he needs to do to work out his grief, he's surrounded by stalwart companions and giving so much of himself to us listeners that it's easy to be humbled and grateful as you stand in awe of Baroness's rock majesty. Long may they reign.

20. Cass McCombs - Tip Of The Sphere

21. Crumb - Jinx
This Brooklyn via Boston band amassed a rabid following (including me) on the basis of two EP's of wobbly psych-funk so anticipation has been running high for their debut album. Jinx continues to deliver on their addictive style; if anything it finds their grooves ever more precise and their melodies more engagingly serpentine, adding up to a series of transporting tunes. At under 30 minutes, the trip may still be too short, but it's one you'll want to take often. Also, they stretch out in concert - catch them for free on August 8th in NYC.

22. Car Seat Headrest - Commit Yourself Completely
I've been yammering on about what a great live band this is since I saw them in 2017 and now here's recorded proof! Even though these nine songs were recorded in seven different spaces, it feels like a coherent document of their dramatically dynamic approach to Will Toledo's conception of post-alternative indie rock. Even the shorter songs are full of epic vibes and their mastery of the slow build only adds to the cathartic feels when they hit full throttle. All of the songs save one come from Teens Of Denial (2016) and Twin Fantasy (2011/2018), which means they're drawn from Toledo's strongest material. One could quibble about the omission of Unforgiving Girl (She's Not An), which was one highlight of the show I saw. The one cover, of Frank Ocean's Ivy, is great but maybe not as revelatory as their take on Bowie's Teenage Wildlife, an interpretation that blew me away in concert. Minor details. This is a fantastic album that will have you jumping up and down as you play it at maximum volume. Your  neighbors might complain - or knock on your door to join you. P.S. Keep an eye out for a tour date near you.

23. C. Duncan - Health

24. Michel Chapman True North

25. Edwyn Collins - Badbea

Listen to a track from all of these albums in this playlist or below. Any of these on your list?

You may also enjoy:
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 1
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 2
The Best Of 2015 (So Far)
2014: Mid-Year Report
The Best Of 2013 (So Far)