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? His birthday on September 7th is certainly a good occasion for these brief thoughts. 

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.

And as another quick exercise to appreciate him even further, consider all the life you've lived since turning 22. Happy birthday, Charles Hardin Holley!

Here's one favorite:

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

Rave On, Buddy, Rave On:

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, 2012, 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  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 exactly 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 nine 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. [Update: The classic line up of T. Rex, including Marc Bolan, Mickey Finn, Steve Currie, and Bill Legend, was inducted into the RRHOF in 2020.]

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: