Sunday, February 24, 2013

Classicism: Possibilities and Pitfalls

The Free Dictionary defines classicism as "a term that, when applied generally, means clearness, elegance, symmetry, and repose produced by attention to traditional forms." Just as in other art forms, some musicians are classicists, steeping themselves in the music of the past and using it to fuel new adventures. Three new releases exemplify this idea, two of them with great success.

Amor De Dias - The House At Sea When the first album by this collaboration between Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele and Lupe Nunez-Fernandez of Pipas came out in 2011, it had the feel of an extra-curricular one-off. Though it took three years to make, it went by like a breeze, with sun-kissed pop abutting tender songs redolent of British folk and bossa nova. It was an addictive combination ended up on my top ten for 2011. However, there was always a little part of me waiting for the next album from The Clientele. Now that we have The House At Sea, I'm not so sure. If MacLean is anything, he's a classicist, with a deep engagement in 1960's rock from The Beatles and (early) Pink Floyd, to The Zombies to The Monkees. One of the problems with classicism is that it can become a cul de sac, leading to art that turns in and in on itself until there's no room for it to breathe. This is a pitfall that The Clientele flirted but never succumbed to as their albums grew progressively more refined.

It may be that with Amor De Dias, MacLean has found the perfect exit from that particular conundrum. By collaborating with Nunez-Fernandez, he's able to cut ties to the band format and freely employ the settings that best serve the songs, and they are beautiful songs. While all the compositions are credited to Amor De Dias, it seems safe to assume that Voice in the Rose, the title track, and especially Jean's Waving, are essentially MacLean songs - in fact, they feature The Clientele's rhythm section and wouldn't sound out of place on one of their albums. But there is a lightness that was not always easy to access on some of those Clientele records, delightful as they are. Also, Nunez-Fernandez contributions are stronger this time, setting off MacLean's work perfectly.

The House At Sea is an exquisite album, it's rich sound and detailed arrangements belying the nine-day recording cycle and small number of players. As with all of MacLean's work, the influence of slightly lysergic surrealism introduces a welcome element of darkness. There are definitely shadows in the sunlight. The final track, Maureen, is one such piece, a haunting Morricone-esque beauty that may hint at another direction for MacLean, another way out should he find himself in one more cul de sac: soundtrack work. Wherever he goes, and with whom, I'll be sure to follow.

P.S. I'll be following Amor De Dias to Hoboken when they play at Maxwell's on March 21st. They'll also be at The Knitting Factory on March 22nd, before hitting Philly and then the west coast.

Jenny O. - Automechanic I first encountered the former Ms. Ognibene when she opened for Jonathan Wilson last May. She performed solo and I was immediately struck by the craft behind her intriguing yet sturdy songs, a few of which were instantly memorable. Her voice was high, a little pinched, and could seem slight, except when she startled me with remarkable breath control, perfect phrasing or unexpected range. That night, when she mentioned she was working on an album with Wilson, my hopes were high.
Now Automechanic is here and it has met, and sometimes exceeded, those expectations. 

The songs are as well made as I remembered, with propulsive verses, catchy choruses and lyrics that can be tough and gimlet-eyed or sunny and positive. You get the sense of a young woman proud of her self sufficiency ("Made all my own tools/Yeah I can machine," she sings on the title track), but longing for connection ("Good company is hard to find," she allows on the jokey, Ringo-esque Hey Neighbor), while being knocked off balance by the demands of relationships ("I flipped my lid off/went to far," she confesses on Opposite Island). This all adds up to a winning, engaging and very human presence, a person you can imagine getting to know.

Wilson, who has done superb work as a producer on his own Gentle Spirit and on Father John Misty's Fear Fun, sets each song like a little gem. Though he's known for embodying the sound of Laurel Canyon and California in general, he's not locked into any one sound. The hooks on Come Get Me, for example, come courtesy tuned tom toms, a fat synth, and perfectly placed tambourines. The solo section on the same song features a few licks from an electric sitar followed a spray of space rock from Benji Lysaght's guitar. None of this detail is gimmicky, however, just in service of the songs. Other songs touch on funk and southern rock swagger (I can imagine Good Love showing up on the soundtrack of Justified).

Some of the songs are quite short, and the album as a whole goes by quickly, but that should be an invitation to slow down and pay closer attention. There's a lot of emotional and musical detail packed in on Automechanic and not a lot a wasted space. Jenny O. has done her homework well grafting DNA from Lennon, McCartney, Stills, Nash, Nicks and other "classic rockers" into her own distinctive style. I think we'll be hearing more from Jenny O, but right now I'm just looking forward to seeing her perform these terrific songs with a full band. While there are no dates in my area yet, others have plenty of opportunity.

Listen to Come Get Me
Come Get Me

Johnny Marr - The Messenger Thanks to the many, many interviews Marr has done to promote this album, we have more details on the classicist impulses of his first band, The Smiths. From emulating the sound of The Shangri-Las, to having definite ideas about the color of the label on their first single, Marr and co-conspirator Morrissey turned a decade of in-depth study of their forbears into what became the finest English rock band of the 80's, and one of the best of all time.

As endlessly stunning and inventive as Marr's work is on those Smiths records, I have found his latter career quite underwhelming. Yes, there have been a few terrific gun-for-hire moments like The Right Stuff, his co-write with Bryan Ferry. Before giving The Messenger another full listen, I spent the day listening to Electronic, his band with New Order's perpetually weedy Bernard Sumner (embarrassing stuff), the album he did with Modest Mouse (Isaac Brock is awful and Marr makes little impression), Talk Talk's Mind Bomb (aiding and abetting Matt Johnson's pretentious twaddle), and the album he did with The Cribs (pretty good, but they also do fine without him).

Unfortunately, after all the publicity, The Messenger turns out to be a highly mediocre effort that too often cranks up the energy levels to obscure the colorless production, characterless singing and sophomoric lyrics. There are some nifty guitar sounds and arrangements, but nothing that surprises or tantalizes like How Soon Is Now, or entrances like Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now or Ask. On the whole, The Messenger sounds like the work of someone hung up on his own hype, and stuck in the past. Not only has he turned his classicist tendencies toward less interesting source material than he used in The Smiths, but those tendencies seem to have gotten the best of him on this airless album.

I would say it sounds like it could been have made 10 years ago, but the fact is Marr made a better record 10 years ago. Though The Messenger is being touted as his first solo album, in 2003 he released Boomslang (terrible title, I know) under the name Johnny Marr & the Healers. He sings more naturally on Boomslang, there's more variety to the production, the rhythm section (including Zak Starkey) feels more flexible and the songs are more dynamic. He also does a nice job of incorporating other influences from the past, including a warm psychedelia that's unexpected. It's in no way a classic, but looking back, it pointed toward a future that had the potential to be more interesting than what has actually happened in Marr's career. Message received: As good a guitarist (and interviewee) as he is, Marr's album is a dud.

More to come - I have pre-orders of Atoms for Peace and Wire in the works, and just received an advance of the new album from Nicholas Cords of Brooklyn Rider.

How's 2013 shaping up for you so far?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Richard Wagner: Tod und Hassliebe

"As a human being he was frightening. Amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with gospels of the superman (the superman naturally being Wagner) and the superiority of the German race, he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character." (Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd Ed.) 

Like it or not, we live in Wagner's future.

His ideas about how to delineate characters through musical themes is the foundation of film scoring since the silent era. Also, his vision of opera as a "gesamtkunstwerk" (unified artwork) encompassing music, visuals, narrative, dance and staging has had a tremendous influence on all performance-based endeavors. His scholarly work on mythologies preserved some of the central motifs of human storytelling for posterity.

In addition, he is an inspiration to all artists for his belief in himself and how incredibly hard he worked  to become the composer he wanted to be. "His early works showed no talent," says Schonberg, and Wagner's family was not shy about letting him know that. But he persevered through poverty and humiliation, and succeeded completely, becoming the most famous composer in the world and immensely wealthy. He built Bayreuth, a temple to himself and a hall custom-designed solely to perform his works. In a final expression of his self-belief - and arrogance - performances of his final opera, Parsifal, were restricted to Bayreuth for 30 years after its premiere in 1882 (although the Metropolitan Opera only waited until 1903). Bayreuth continues to present solely Wagner's operas 130 years after his death.

None of this would matter if he had not created some of the most sheerly beautiful music ever written, and some of the most exciting stage stories as well. Perhaps because he presented himself as godlike, yet likely knew that inside he was all too human, his ability to get in the heads of the gods and goddesses of the Ring cycle transformed a tale that could have been mere swords and sorcery. All of his characters, in fact, are simultaneously iconic and down to earth, which may be the dramatic key to the endurance of his works in the opera house.

But it all comes back to those endless melodies and mesmerizing harmonies, creating a framework for spectacular singing and marvelous orchestral sounds. The question about the relationship of the art and the artist is age-old and not going anywhere. In his time Wagner promoted some truly despicable philosophies, which made it all too easy for the Nazis, 50 years after his death, to co-opt his music for their own nefarious purposes. Wagner challenges us to look beyond his pathetic human frailties and to see the splendor of his art. 

How beautifully appropriate that the man responsible for the indelible Liebestod, which tells of a love that can only be consummated in death, breathed his last on the day before we celebrate Valentine's Day. As you sink your teeth into chocolates tomorrow, why not immerse yourself in Wagner's glorious and complex sound world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Joseph Byrd: Coop Flown

Joseph Byrd is my kind of people. Born in 1937, he studied first at the University of Arizona, where he showed promise as a musician. He moved on to Stanford, where he met up with folks like Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Terry Riley. In 1960, he came to NYC and fell in with the likes of Yoko Ono, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Virgil Thomson. He was only in NY for three years before moving back west, where he became a professor of ethno-musicology, founded two psychedelic rock bands (one released an album on Columbia), and worked with synthesizer pioneer Tom Oberheim. Somewhere along the way he produced Ry Cooder and Linda Ronstadt, helped Mattel with electronic sounds and wrote the theme music for the CBS Evening News. He is now a professor of music at the College of the Redwoods.

He's my kind of people because he pursues his passions without concern for making his output fit into a proscribed notion of what a career should look like. The only detriment to his quicksilver shifts is that he didn't leave as much of an impression as his work deserved - we know that now thanks to the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) and their terrific new album, Joseph Byrd - NYC 1960-1963.

Everything on the record receives its premiere commercial recording and the selections create a kaleidoscopic view of Byrd's compositions during his New York Sojourn. Animals, the opening track exists at the intersection of Reich and Harry Partch, all woody sounds, precise ticks and unexpected drama. The concision of the piece is an indication of Byrd's discipline as a composer, and his mastery of form and structure.

But he was not wedded to those ideals. His work with Cage and Feldman gave him leave to loosen his grip and employ indeterminacy as a compositional tool in several of the pieces on the collection. For example, Loops and Sequences gives a pianist and a cellist each a series of notated loops. They can play them in any order, as long as they play each loop only once. For the listener, the result is the sound of two individuals seeking commonality, and finding it only in the end result: a contemplative miniature.

Over the course of the album there are a variety of settings, from solo prepared piano to string trios, from quintets to solo voices, and from electronics to balloons. The last are used in the Prelude to "The Mystery Cheese Ball," a chamber opera composed in 1961 and performed at Ono's loft. Consisting entirely of the sound of air leaving the balloons at different pitches, the result is the definition of whimsy - unless you're too sensitive to high-pitched sounds.

Byrd's music is challenging, but never inaccessible, thanks to his compositional chops and the ACME's committed and engaged performances. The standout for me is the longest piece on the record, Water Music for percussion solo and electronic tape. This involving work gives the percussionist latitude in how he or she relates to the fixed sounds on the tape, which was created in the multi-track studios of Capitol records where Byrd was on staff for a minute. The tape is a lush tapestry and Byrd cannily chose percussion instruments that echo rather than contrast the electronic sounds. Water Music is a rich experience that would not be out of place among the classic Varese and Wuorinen works on Nonesuch's 1968 Percussion Music collection.

Part of the joy of listening to Joseph Byrd's work here, so lovingly presented by ACME, is the window it affords on the fecundity of the scene in NYC in those years. Not too long after Byrd left the Big Apple, Lou Reed met John Cale and the city's avant garde was primed to take quite a different turn.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Getting Mystical at Santos

After working for over 10 years in the non-profit world, one of the wisest pieces of advice I ever got about fundraising was "It's always a bit of a mess." Fortunately, I was also given a corollary to help me maintain my optimistic outlook: "It always works out in the end." These aphorisms were borne out on Thursday, January 31st, at Feed The Kids Art, the America Mambouka foundation's launch event at Santos Party House. The headliner was Sean Lennon and Greg Saunier's Mystical Weapons and, having missed their last show, I made it my business to get there. In the weeks leading up to the gig, I also became acquainted with Napoleon. Not the exiled French emperor, but rather an up-and-coming psych-rock/pop band - the best in NYC according to the readers of The Deli.

So that's how I ended up on Lafayette street below Canal, one frigid night after a quick bite of squid at Excellent Dumpling House. Here's the report as it happened...
My first time to Santos and, having been slightly spoiled by the tight ship of shows run by Bowery Presents, I'm slightly taken aback by the disorganization. Even after trying to be fashionably late, I'm still early. Whatever - after waiting in the cold for a bit, and then again at the box office, I'm finally shown downstairs. I open the door's going to be a long night. The room is nearly empty, although the fog shot through with colored pin spots is creating more than enough atmosphere. 

One of the young DJ's featured in the America Mambouka calendar is spinning and the groove sounds good so I order a drink and settle in.
The room was atmospheric but empty when I arrived.
Sean Lennon is by the bar so I say hi. We met years ago, at Mike D.'s infamous scavenger hunt birthday - "The best ever!" declares Sean. I also mention the concert by his band, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, that I took my daughter to at South Street Seaport a couple of years ago. He is gratified to hear that we still talk about it. "Oh yeah, I felt good about that one," Sean says. When I ask if they might tour again, he says "So much work with that band. This (Mystical Weapons) is easy - we just improvise." Easy, maybe, but only after you've spent years becoming master musicians like Lennon and Saunier.

Eventually the amusingly named "Sarah Tone In" takes the stage and thanks us all for coming. True to her word, she and her DJ Alanna Raven play one track - serrated electronic beats over which she raps rhymes about a misfit. The line about not taking advice from Bobby Brown garners some knowing cheers before the song ends with a convincing a cappella.

Santos has invested well in their sound system and the Missy Elliott song that drops next sounds fantastic. Timbaland's vintage but still futuristic beats also feature in Alanna Raven's solid and funky DJ set.

Kenley Collins of Project Runway welcomes us in a slightly more formal fashion before inviting Sarah Tone In back for another song. She's a trouper, gamely rapping to the small crowd and not taking indifference for an answer. Truth be told, she has serious potential and its good to hear a female rapper immune to that Gucci Gucci Kesha Kitty Pryde bullshit.

The rhythms take a slightly different turn when the organization's founder Devi Mambouka herself spins for a few minutes, edging into DJ/Rupture territory, before Bijoux's turn on stage. Bijoux comes with a rock edge thanks to her pink hair, 4/4 beats and anthemic choruses. Fat Tony inserts a lighthearted rap and their genuine chemistry is obvious. They're one and done and Mambouka starts rocking her laptop again. She's the real deal and may very well be one of NYC's best kept secrets - at least to me.

I can't lie - the nonprofit professional in me cringes slightly when a live auction of original artwork is sprung on the sparse crowd. Fortunately, the auctioneer is unflappable and it's over quickly. Mambouka is next to the stage and she and her brother give a little background on the mission of the foundation, which is rooted in their experiences as artistically inclined immigrants from Gabon being raised in the Bronx. The funds raised tonight, and through their IndieGogo campaign, will provide after-school art and music programming to the kids at the West Harlem Residence. Good people, good intentions, and I'm sure they'll do good things.

Speeches done, the five members of Napoleon fill the small stage and launch into their set. Having only listened to their album once, I am immediately struck by how many songs I recognize. The bright, dense treble of Julien O'neill's Gibson SG meshes nicely with the sparser sound of Jared Walker's hollow body guitar while Julian Anderson's taut, spacious bass lines keep things moving. Harrison Keithline's drums are locked in tight and the sound is filled out by their new keyboard player who makes the biggest impression on the last song, a new one they plan to record next week.
I like Napoleon's approach, which is slightly reminiscent of The Walkmen with a healthy dose of new wave and a sprinkle of psychedelia, ska and reggae. They have several strong songs and, like The Walkmen, are not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. I'm looking forward to more from them.
I step into the foyer to try to get a better cell signal and chat with Julian and Julien for a while - nice guys - and when I walk back in I am confronted by a topless woman on stage. She's singing in a monotone over programmed tracks reminiscent of Suicide. This must be No Bra. While her music is not entirely uninteresting, the complete lack of humor - or any kind of emotional modulation - quickly grows wearying.

She finally finishes and another young DJ takes over, laying down a devastating mix that includes noise rock, Led Zeppelin, Tame Impala, and The Slits. It's refreshing and brings me back to a night over 30 years ago on Laight street, just a few blocks from Santos, when I first danced to I Heard It Though The Grapevine.

Now, Sean Lennon may think Mystical Weapons is an easy gig, but it's anything but easy for his roadie who takes quite some time getting everything in order. Saunier's kit is basic, but Lennon's rig includes a couple of guitars, a bass, some keyboards and a mind-boggling array of effects pedals and other electronics. There is no ado - they get on stage and begin. Unlike their terrific album, there are few moments of space or contemplation: the music goes from fury to rage, the volume from loud to louder. Lennon is all over the stage, expertly making use of all that stuff, and the roadie proves to be an honorary third member as he remains completely available to Sean, whether to tune the bass, hand over a guitar, or keep the stage relatively clear so Lennon doesn't trip over something.

Minutes into the set, the slightly larger audience is mostly pressed up against the stage, soaking up the glorious noise. I go into tunnel vision, my focus becoming absolute on Lennon and Saunier's hairpin turns and juddering stops and starts. My hyper-attentiveness is completely rewarded, and while I acknowledge Martha Colburn's visuals on the small screen, the real movie is in my mind. Saunier is likely one of the best drummers in America right now and his ability to make everything groove is one of the elements that make Mystical Weapons work so well. He can pursue abstraction but is rarely far from finding the backbeat or funk in whatever Lennon throws at him - which is a lot. From motorik loops to screaming wah wah and feedback drenched solos, and from grungy bass lines to swooping electronic washes, Lennon is blissfully all over the map.
Sean Lennon
Greg Saunier and that hard-working roadie
They play continuously for about 40 minutes before doing an encore of sorts by switching positions, Sean at the drums, but we're all pretty much spent. Whether Mystical Weapons is an ongoing project or just another byway in Lennon's fascinating career, I'm very glad to have had a chance to witness one his and Saunier's brilliant excursions.

More power to Devi Mambouka and the America Mambouka foundation. Yes, it was a bit of a mess, but it all worked out in the end. As I hail a cab on nearly-deserted Canal Street, I'm thinking that when word gets out about the kind of party they throw, it's highly unlikely that there will be many more half-empty rooms in their future.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Bob Marley

It seems fashionable in some hipster circles to dismiss Bob Marley, as if he didn't make REAL reggae, like  Augustus Pablo or Linval Thompson or Burning Spear or Junior Murvin. I can sort of see why some people might feel that way. He wasn't the most innovative of the reggae greats and, while he could sing sweetly, he didn't have the deliciously light touch of Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown.

None of that matters, however, because by the time he died, Bob no longer belonged to reggae, he belonged to the world. Through his incredible songwriting and otherworldly personal magnetism he became a global superstar, some even said a prophet.

Even that doesn't matter to me, though, because I have my own personal relationship with his music. Rarely have I taken such deep pleasure and succor from an artist. When I was 16 I got the Exodus album and listened to it every day for the summer. Since only the lyrics to the title track were printed, I painstakingly wrote the rest out. Through that process, I learned about Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle, and was led to an in-depth study of Jamaican history and culture, which continues to this day.

Years later, a song from Exodus got me through one of the hardest nights of my life, when my son was in post-surgical pain and I sang him to sleep with Three Little Birds. The song came unbidden to my lips and worked like a charm.

Exodus was followed by the somewhat underwhelming Kaya, and then by Survival, which I've always felt was underrated. I downloaded it after not listening to it for a few years and when So Much Trouble In The World spilled into my headphones I thought "The world needs Bob Marley" - and I still feel that way. My daughter and I listen to Survival every morning on the way to the ski area and I can see that Marley has become part of her soul, too.

I have my own hipster moments when I think the weirder, rawer stuff he recorded with Lee Perry is his best work, but I love it all. I was lucky enough to see him (it was quite a night) at his second-to-last NYC concert and he was beyond charismatic, neither his singing nor his dancing humbled by his fatal illness. Think what he could have accomplished if he had lived for another 36 years - at the very least. Happy 68th birthday, Robert Nesta Marley.