Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Book Of Hook

Art is often the expression of the ineffable, and no art form is this more true of than music. Why does a chord sequence or a melody have the power to elicit an emotional response? Why does rhythm make our bodies move? Why do the lyrics of often very young people continue to illuminate our lives? You can analyze and deconstruct to your heart's content, but sometimes it's best to let mysteries remain mysteries. Of course, that doesn't stop us writers from finding something to say about anything that catches our attention.
And these days, it doesn't stop musicians from writing books about themselves and their music, exposing the inner workings of that which we fans hold so precious. I have avoided some of these books, either because they seem self-serving or because as I just don't want to know too much.
When I heard about Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by their bass player Peter Hook, I was going to put it in the category of books to avoid. I still find something fragile in their short career, and in Ian Curtis's short life, for one thing, and for another, Hook sometimes seems to be a right bastard in interviews. On further reflection, it was precisely for the latter reason (and an interview with Hook on WNYC's Soundcheck) that I decided to read it. I figured Hook's ability to be unvarnished and even unflattering about himself meant he could be trusted.
Also, Joy Division's music is so intertwined in my very soul that nothing could change my fundamental relationship with it. I can still remember buying my beautiful ruby red vinyl copy of Closer, which was easier to find than the first album, and being instantly captivated. We all were, and even though Ian Curtis's suicide stopped their career in its tracks, it didn't freeze the music in amber: in the world it continued to grow in stature, and in my own life it has grown with me to become one standard by which all music is judged.
Whether it was wisdom or emotion that led Peter Hook to wait more than 30 years before writing this book, there is no doubt that the distance of time is to its benefit. His point of view is disarmingly clear and his recollections ring true throughout. His love and admiration for Joy Division's musical achievement is never in doubt and there is a sense that even though he was a participant he is not entirely sure how he and his rambunctious friends created it. He can describe it, but he can't unravel it.
While Unknown Pleasures is not overtly literary, it is well organized and does not fall prey to the breathless "and then this, and then that" structure of many "as told to" books. Hook also knows how to build drama and excitement as the scrappy group originally known as Warsaw works their way up the music scene in Manchester, to London and beyond. It was a fecund time and place and he does a great job conveying the sense of possibilities and how he and his compatriots in Joy Division, and at Factory, their label, made it all up as they went along.
Hook never puts Curtis on a pedestal, but he does recognize his extraordinary talent, which went beyond just singing and writing lyrics. In one telling passage, he describes the essential role Curtis played in the songwriting process: "...he had that ear - he thought like a musician. The way it worked was that he'd listen to us jamming, and then direct the song until it was...a song. He stood there like a conductor and picked out the best bits." He is also unhesitating in his praise and respect for the other band members, guitarist and keyboard player Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris. He never loses sight of their originality and growing musical prowess. Admirably, even though his relations with them are currently at a low ebb, he never indulges in gratuitous character assassination. The fact that Sumner comes off as essentially a cold and self-involved person seems based in fact rather than hurt feelings. Hook, who lists Closer as one of his top five albums, doesn't let personalities stand in the way of the pleasure of the music itself and nor should we.
The structure of the book is well-balanced between the nuts and bolts of the music itself, the work that went into making it and the often-entertaining antics of the players involved. The fact that these were basically kids acting the way most young rock musicians act also takes nothing away from the indomitable quality of Joy Division's music. The timelines and track by track analyses break up the narrative nicely, with the latter especially being worth the price of admission. His recognition of the greatness of Joy Division's music is not bound up in his ego; he recognizes that they were a fast developing but very young band. I am in full agreement with him that Closer is the stronger of their two albums (although not by much) and that there were still opportunities for growth.
As someone who is not a fan of New Order, I will always feel that those opportunities were wasted. I'm probably not alone in that - Hook himself might agree, but we'll have to wait for his book on his second career to find out. Based on the musical erudition, emotional connection and engaging personality on display in Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, I just might pick up Hook's next volume.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bowie: Where Is He Now?

When I was 16 I discovered both David Bowie and Burning Spear. I remember writing to a friend that Spear made me feel grounded, at one with the earth, while Bowie made me feel above it all, a god's-eye view, where troubles and joys had the same value. Spear lives in Queens now, not the loamy hills of Jamaica, but when I saw him in concert a few years ago I still got that rich, natural feeling. And how am I feeling now that Bowie is back? Pretty damned tall.

The story of The Next Day has been told in detail by so many publications that I don't feel the need to go into it here. I will say that I come down on the side that Bowie's comeback was, and continues to be, one of the most remarkable public relations coups of recent years. From the "cone of silence" over the recording sessions themselves, to his own continued silence ("He's letting us do all the work," as bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey put it), Bowie has proved that he is still a master manipulator of media. Remember, this is the man who created Ziggy, a superstar persona that resulted in actual superstardom, after about a decade of trying.

When the song and video Where Are We Now? burst into the consciousness of the world on his 66th birthday, some commented that Bowie looked and sounded frail. But it was instantly clear to me that he was still the actor, with every blink and swallow carefully enacted. Using only his attenuated face, Bowie gave as precise a performance as his legendary run on Broadway in The Elephant Man. The song itself was gorgeous and witty, a wry and romantic look back at Bowie's Berlin days. Nostalgic, yes, but far from cliched. Admit it: you never heard the word Dschungle in a song before, certainly not sung so casually. Produced by Tony Visconti, the sound was lush yet spare, a small ensemble masterfully employed.

Andre Bazin, the French film theorist, created the idea of doubling, where what we know of a film actor's real life informs their performance of a character that is not them. In Where Are We Now? Bowie makes use of this "Bazinian doubling" to lend depth to our experience of the song. He knows what we know about his time in Berlin and allows us to fill in blanks - but that doesnt mean that it is Bowie himself who is singing the song. Bowie is not a confessional songwriter, after all. The "old Bowie" persona in Where Are We Now? may be one of his canniest creations yet, one which gives us access to the emotions of the song rather than distancing us from them. Then the album arrived, with its brilliant cocked snook of a cover, and it was clear that Bowie would not be wallowing in his past but simply standing on it to get to a new place in his art.

The title track kicks the album off with a dry thwack, snarling guitars matched by Bowie's swaggering sneer. While it has a similar swing to Repetition from Lodger, The Next Day is driving and confident with phantasmagoric lyrics based in Bowie's medieval studies. It's an etching of an execution repurposed by The Starn Twins. Cleverly sung from the POV of the slain ruler, the line (by now much-quoted) "Here am I/Not quite dying'" savagely puts paid to the rumors of Bowie's ill health in true Bazinian fashion.

Dirty Boys, ugly and ungainly like its subjects, comes next and solidifies the sense that Bowie is fully engaged as an artist and unafraid to challenge himself. The spacious sound gives room for the three-guitar knife-fight of Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick and Visconti to compete for dominance. Aided and abetted by Steve Elson's baritone sax, the herky jerky rhythm of Dirty Boys is the perfect lead-in to the sweeping onrush of The Stars (Are Out Tonight).

Instantly in the pantheon of Bowie's greatest songs, with a fascinating video to match, The Stars is a dark look at the relationship between the famous and their fans, but instead of the latter parasitically leaching off the former, the roles are reversed: "They burn you with their radiant smiles/Trap you with their beautiful eyes." Leave it to Bowie to find something original to say about our celebrity-obsessed culture, and to wrap it up in such a seductive package, with David Torn's processed guitar lending depth and atmosphere.

There have been some comments (complaints?) that Visconti is not doing enough as a producer on The Next Day. In some senses, he and Bowie employed an old-fashioned approach by having musicians play together in a studio, shuffling players in and out as each song demanded. It is also true that there is little of Brian Eno-style treatments and everything pretty much sounds like what it is. But listening to Love Is Lost and then checking the credits to see that its grandiose sound is the product of just four musicians, with minimal overdubbing (except for the layered vocals), is to realize that all is not as simple as it seems. One of Visconti's greatest achievements, after all, is the gleaming perfection T.Rex's The Slider, which is more the result of the organization of sound and the deployment of resources than any studio wizardry. The same is true of The Next Day.

Valentine's Day also features a small group sound with a complex vocal arrangement, and is one of Bowie's compassionate portraits of an outcast, this time a high school loser who imagines " he'd feel/If all the world were under his heel." Maybe all will be well if he meets the girl with the mousy hair from Life On Mars - but I doubt it. It's no accident that Valentine's Day is followed by the overwhelming power of If You Can See Me, with its prog rhythms and shattering vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey soaring overhead. This is Valentine become "the spirit of greed, a lord of theft," and at the head of an rampaging army, his divided self embodied by Bowie's processed singing. It's the kind of song you can imagine on Buffalo Bill's iPod and it sounds like nothing else in Bowie's catalog.

I'd Rather Be High is a Sixties-infused slice of anti-war greatness, with a chorus of Bowies providing the perfect backdrop for the swooping melodies. It's a fantastic song, informed by Apocalypse Now and Generation Kill, and one that John Lennon himself would likely welcome as the b-side of Rain. Like The Stars, it's a bitter pill with a creamy coating and the pure expression of a genius songwriter at the top of his game. One can only wonder at the renewable font of creativity on display.

Boss Of Me and Dancing Out In Space are probably the weakest songs here, redeemed by sheer pop craft, committed singing and unexpected lyrical twists. Bazin welcomes us to contemplate Bowie and Iman's long and happy marriage while listening to Boss Of Me, and Dancing Out In Space is filled with Torn's glorious soundscapes and perhaps the only reference to Georges Rodenbach, the 19th century Belgian symbolist, in a rock song. Both songs are a little silly, but Bowie seems in on the joke and they'd be easier to dismiss if they weren't so catchy.

How Does The Grass Grow? evokes Europe in the throes of a post-war rebirth fertilized by the blood of young men. In a nod to sampling culture it contains an "interpolation" of Jerry Lordan's Apache (a huge hit for The Shadows in 1960), which although I am unable to tease it out leads to the song being co-credited to Lordan. Perhaps this is Bowie's meta reference to his roots in bombed out pre-Beatles England, or it could be a way for Lordan's heirs to get some income. Coincidentally, Lordan went to Finchley Catholic High School, so maybe he was one of the "dirty boys" who stole a cricket bat at Finchley Fair in the earlier song. Or maybe I'm just on a Wikipedia-fueled tangent while Bowie chuckles in the corner.

I'm no fan of Jack White but I recognize the influence of his fractured riffs in the punky intro and hard-rocking verse of (You Will) Set The World On Fire. It's essentially a song of encouragement, unexpectedly set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 60's, with the narrator pledging to do whatever it takes to bring the talents of another to fruition. If you're having trouble accomplishing something, consider programming your alarm clock to wake you each morning with this song's explosive energy.

With its Hearbreak Hotel title and Leonard Cohen melody, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die has the form of another Bowie ballad, but its theme is vengeance: "Oblivion shall own you/Death alone shall love you/I hope you feel so lonely you could die." This is Bob Dylan bleak and a long way from the consolations of Rock'n'Roll Suicide. Like much of The Next Day, the contrast between form and content is enthralling.

Bowie's love and high regard for the music of Scott Walker has been well known at least since he covered Nite Flights on Black Tie White Noise in 1993. But album closer Heat is a much more fitting homage, with a sepulchral vocal and the chilly refrain of "My father ran the prison." One way Bowie is most unlike Walker is that while he likes to appear alienated (and maybe he is), he never wants to alienate. So Heat is still beautiful to listen to, unlike one of the room-clearing tracks from Walker's more recent albums, like 2012's monumental Bish Bosch. Nite Flights was the title track of the last album by The Walker Brothers and contained four songs by Scott Walker, which, along with Harmonia's Deluxe, were the biggest influence on Lodger, so this is a debt well-paid.

Bowie is obviously at a prolific place as the deluxe edition of The Next Day comes with three bonus tracks and, while perhaps not essential, they are worth the extra couple of bucks. So She is a short and twisted pop gem, while Plan is the brittle instrumental heard at the beginning of the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight). I'll Take You There is a fast-paced rocker in the mold of How Does The Grass Grow, though not as fully realized.

Any time we listen to music, it's filtered through our expectations and experiences. With an artist as legendary as David Bowie these two factors are cranked up nearly to the breaking point. Is it even fair to judge The Next Day next to his nearly flawless RCA years, as great a run of albums as there has been in recorded music? Considering that contemporary critics often misjudged those albums as they were released, I would hesitate to compare The Next Day to one of Bowie's 70's classics. Time will likely be the best judge of that. I think there are better questions to ask: Does this album speak to me and move me today? Has it withstood close listening and scrutiny of the music and lyrics? Does it reveal growth and change in Bowie's artistry?

I can answer all of these queries with a resounding YES. The Next Day is a nearly a complete triumph, and one that is far less dependent on Bowie's artistic capital than his last two albums, Heathen and Reality, which were both quite good. As a singer, songwriter and arranger he shows enough variety of inspiration so as to be almost protean, an astonishing feat for an artist in his 60's. He sounds excited and energized and is an inspiration to those of us who plan to continue believing in rock & roll for the rest of our days. Don't wait until tomorrow: The Next Day is today.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Crossing Into Night: Dinnerstein & Merritt

Simone Dinnerstein stunned the world of classical music in 2007 when her self-produced recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations shot to the top of the Billboard chart. Wherever her version ultimately ranks on the list of the many, many recordings of these popular pieces, it was immediately obvious that the record introduced an artist with an uncommon ability to communicate. Fortunately,while her playing may have been slightly over-romantic, this was in no way a dumbing down of Bach. Since then, she has continued to seek ways to inject freshness in the music of Bach, Schubert and Beethoven, among others.

Dinnerstein's expressive playing and down to earth approach made her ripe for a full-on classical crossover project like Night, the new album she made with Americana/alt-country singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Released by Sony Classical on March 19th, Night is a moody and well-programmed collection which includes originals by Merritt, classical selections, traditional songs and songs by Billie Holiday, Brad Meldhau, Patty Griffin, and Johnny Nash.

It is likely that one of the larger contributions to the success of Night is its long gestation. Rather than being thrust into the studio and being forced to create, Merritt and Dinnerstein first met in 2008 and soon found a musical affinity. Working together meant a push out of comfort zones for each of them but their friendship ensured a mutual support system rather than an attempt to defend their own territories as can sometimes happen with such collaborations.

Of course, the pleasures and intentions of the artists are secondary to the experience of actually listening to the music. So what have they delivered on Night? In keeping with the title, this is a dusk-imbued album with a hushed quality that avoids drifting into preciousness. The rich involving sound of the record belies the spare instrumentation, which features only Dinnerstein's piano (played like a zither on at least on song) and Merritt's guitar and harmonica.

Merritt is rare among many current female singers in that she sings without affectation or overt mannerisms. That said, she is well aware of the parameters of her voice and knows when to push and when to restrain. A perfect example of this is the stunning interpretation of When I Am Laid In Earth (here called Dido's Lament), an aria from Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Demonstrating a real flair for theater, Merritt for a few minutes becomes the vanquished queen of Carthage. But this is a Dido shorn of baroque and operatic finery and the rough edges Merritt finds in her voice are electrifying.

Dido's Lament is certainly a standout piece on Night, but not so much that it doesn't fit beautifully between Holiday's Don't Explain and Meldhau's bluesy I Shall Weep At Night, which was written specifically for this album. Besides the Purcell, the other classical contributions are Night and Dreams, a lovely arrangement of Schubert's Nacht und Traum, a short Bach Prelude, and the world-premiere recording of Daniel Felsenfeld's The Cohen Variations, based on Leonard Cohen's iconic Suzanne. The latter two are both instrumentals, and, while I wouldn't mind hearing Merritt sing Cohen, they do a nice job of breaking things up.

Felsenfeld's piece is reflective, like the song it's based on, and avoids capital-V virtuosity, which can be said for Dinnerstein's work overall on Night. Her playing is direct, flexible, and uncluttered, and blends beautifully with Merritt's guitar when they play side by side. The more I listen to Night, the more I am struck by how much of a meeting of musical minds it is. Rather than a shotgun wedding, this is a true collaboration without either hipster self-consciousness or condescending stiffness.

While I was not overly familiar with Merritt's songs before listening to Night, I have enjoyed getting to know them. Based on the four Merritt originals on the album, including two remakes, she is a very solid songwriter, with searching, emotional lyrics and well-shaped melodies. Her songs feel fully realized in the stripped down presentation here, but I'm looking forward to exploring her back catalog in more depth.

Perhaps the only faltering moment on Night is the album closer, which is Dinnerstein and Merritt's own arrangement of Johnny Nash's pop-reggae classic, I Can See Clearly Now. The wistful exuberance of the song is not very well served by the spare arrangement, which sounds distinctly like a demo. While I like the idea of an upbeat ending to this occasionally somber album, what we end up with is betwixt and between and never quite finds its footing. It's not unpleasant, but just doesn't quite hit the sweet spot, unlike the rest of this gorgeous album. Night deserves to gain new fans for both Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, and to leave those fans looking forward to more from the duo.

Tickets are still available for their appearance at Merkin Concert Hall this Thursday, March 21st. After that they will be appearing around the country, so keep an eye out in your area. Dinnerstein returns to Le Poisson Rouge in NYC on June 9th with the Goldberg Variations.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sly Stone: Funky 7-0

To my mind, there are three overwhelming geniuses of funk in the history of music: James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton. All of them are among my favorite artists but I would hazard that Sly is the most misunderstood. The 60's Sly - he of Woodstock and taking you higher - and the 70's Sly - he of blown concerts and "running away to get away" - are almost two different people. The culture embraced the former and, over time, rejected the latter. Perhaps that, more than the tragedy of his addictions, is what drove him into exile.

By the late 70's and early 80's, his later records were out of print and either maligned or forgotten. It was ironic because as his star waned, bands like the Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang had major success serving up an uncomplicated (if wonderful) version of what Sly had pioneered. In the early 90's, a friend sent me a copy of Fresh. I called him in California while it was still playing and asked why no one was talking about this record, why it was out of print (except on pricy and quasi-legal imports) and, most all why wasn't it in the canon? "I don't know, Jeremy, sometimes I think it's because it's just TOO funky." It is hellaciously funky, but after listening a few more times, I decided it was really because it was too personal.

Unlike a lot of funk and soul artists, starting with the masterpiece of There's A Riot Going On, Sly seemed to singing about specific people and situations instead of abstractions. Family Affair used to scare me slightly as a child - it was so real, so human. But as I got deeper into his catalog I just found more to love - and more to be sad about, since (aside from the odd appearance - sometimes very odd)  he seems to still be mostly in exile - from us, from his talent and from himself. Whatever his demons, from 1967 to 1980 he produced a remarkable catalog of work.

Fortunately, by now his catalog is in pretty good shape, with expanded versions of almost all of his albums easily available and a new box set on the way. Get it all.

James Brown is the giant, and George Clinton came from the Mothership on high, but Sly was the man who walked among us, dealing with his family, his past, and his worries. He gave of himself in a unique way over some of the most amazing grooves of all time. Here's a few of them to celebrate Sly's 70th birthday.

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Buzz Buzz In My Eardrum

It was the most buzzed about show of the...week? Month? Day? Either way, the buzz for me was only about one of the three bands playing at Bowery Ballroom last Thursday: Parquet Courts. In fact, I had bought the tickets with nearly complete ignorance of the other two bands on the bill, Nude Beach and The Men, the ostensible headliners.

I had fallen hard for Parquet Courts back in January, when What's Yr Rupture reissued their debut album, Light Up Gold. Their songs distill early Pere Ubu, Wire and Velvet Underground, with a little of The Strokes and The Walkmen tossed in, into a fresh, driving sound. The accomplishment of the music, with it's tight rhythms, canny guitar interlock and contrasting voices, is nicely contrasted by the slacker aimlessness of some of the lyrics. Many of the songs are short, so Stoned & Starving at 5:11 stands out. At whatever length it would be an instant New York anthem: "I was walking through Ridgewood, Queens/I was flipping through magazines/I was so/Stoned & starving." Just try not to sing along.

Everything pointed to Parquet Courts being a great live band, too, so I put them in my Songkick, hoped for the best, and snapped up the first tickets I could. Before the show, I did my due diligence and listened to Nude Beach and The Men. The former is a shockingly traditional band. Tom Petty is often mentioned, and he is definitely present, along with The Replacements and Stiff-era Elvis Costello. Their second album, II, is not bad at all, with some catchy tunes. The Men I initially found confusing as they've made some whiplash shifts, from wall-of-noise meta-punk on their earlier albums to the sometimes more pastoral sounds on their latest New Moon. The vocals are not very distinctive and I can't say I found any of it terribly convincing but I would at least be walking into Bowery Ballroom with some measure of what to expect - and with open ears.

The show was sold out and, while the room didn't fill up for Parquet Courts, everyone who did get there early enough to see them was devoted. They set up without fuss, with singer/guitarist Andrew Savage and singer/guitarist Austin Brown flanking bassist Sam Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage at the back. The name of the band comes from Yeaton's hometown, where the Celtics play on parquet courts in the famous Boston Garden (who wants to call it TD Garden? Not me), and songs often began with his emphatic bass setting the tone. Andrew Savage is an expert at the Lou Reed single-string + controlled feedback solo and his sinewy lines were consistently engaging, while Brown mostly played chunky rhythm guitar. Max Savage is a great drummer and his attentiveness to his band mates allowed them to shift from one tempo to the next without hesitation.

They doled out the short songs expertly, often creating vertiginous portmanteaus of two songs with one ending on the upbeat and the next starting on the down. The way No Donuts collides with Yr No Stoner on Light Up Gold gives a good idea of what was a thrilling effect in an overall thrilling set. It was a spare 45 minutes, due to them being first on the bill, and could have perhaps used a touch of chaos. I plan to be there when they start headlining and (hopefully) pushing their music to the edge in a much more crowded room.

The three members of Nude Beach took the stage next - Chuck Betz on guitar, Ryan Naideau on bass, and Jimmy Shelton on drums. As promised by their album, they were tight and fun if maybe missing that one standout song and the indelible singing that could separate them from the pack. I found much to admire in Betz's guitar solos - each one told a concise little tale with a beginning, middle and end. I stayed for the whole set and wouldn't be surprised if more exciting stuff comes from them down the pike.

It was coming up on 11:00pm on a school night and I decided to leave it to The Men to convince me to stay later than advisable. I got my coat from the coat check and moved to the back of the room, which was now jammed to capacity. Anticipation was running high in the crowd and while I was not untouched by its contagion, I remained an outsider. The band eventually took the stage, minus their drummer, and started up one of their big noisy intros, with a sax wailing away in the mix. Eventually, the song proper kicked in when the drummer joined them and the audience went nuts. I remained unmoved and when one of the guys went into an ill-fitting amateur-hour monologue about Jimi Hendrix, I gave up and left. I am grateful to The Men for one thing: their utter mediocrity kept me from being severely sleep deprived for a very demanding schedule the next day.

Excursions & Recursions: Nicholas Cords

You are standing between two mirrors. You turn to face one and are confronted with infinitely repeating reflections of yourself: this is one kind of recursion. Another type is when there is a picture on the cover a book showing someone holding a book, which has a picture of the same person holding the same book, and on and on, ad infinitum. In math and technology recursions are also related to fractals, in which the part is identical to the whole at any scale. Recursions is also the name of the debut solo album by violist Nicholas Cords.

That's a lot of mental baggage to put into the title of a record. Perhaps it is Cords's way of nudging his listeners to the realization that the music within is, despite spanning centuries and continents, self-similar. His selections certainly make full use of the viola's dark-hued tones and rich timbre. The music is emotional, sometimes almost anguished, and often filled with broad strokes rather than virtuosic details - although the playing is flawless, as you would expect from a member of both groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo Yo Ma's globe trotting Silk Road Ensemble. Recursive though it may be, there is nothing repetitive about this album.

The opening track, Heinrich Biber's Passacaglia, has a haunting, almost medieval air, despite being composed in 1676, and leads perfectly into Port Na BPucai (the music of the fairies), a traditional Irish theme arranged by Cords. In barely 14 minutes we have traveled from Baroque Salzburg to a timeless Irish past, finding commonality of feeling between the two. The Biber piece is part of a larger work, the Rosary Sonatas, which details the life of Mary in 15 settings but if there is any irony in setting it beside "fairy music," you won't find it here.

British composer Edmund Rubbra's Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn 'O Quando E Cruces' from 1964 follows, and another theme emerges, that of translations and transcriptions. The Biber work, after all was originally written for violin and the Irish tune is often played on the uilleann pipes. Like Biber, Rubbra draws on the monophony of medievalism before moving into some decidedly un-hymn like dance rhythms, sometimes plucked or strummed in an almost off-kilter fashion. This is no intellectual exercise, however - there is a mood of exploration that carries you through.

Armenian folk tunes are the basis for Alan Hovhaness's Chahagir (1945), one of only two American works on the album. There is no cheap exoticism contained in the piece; rather it is a passionate essay that fully respects the composer's Armenian roots. Cords's playing is fiery, but always in control.

The next piece, Five Migrations, composed by Cords's himself, totals just over seven minutes yet is the heart of the collection, drawing together all the themes and variations contained within. An overview:

  1. Timegate (:51) Multitracking allows Cords to play a spacy melody over his own ostinato.
  2. Stilted Reverie (:48) Combines scrapes, drones and an eastern-tinged tune.
  3. Anachronism (2:07) A subtle glitchy undertone supports a song of shadowed sunshine.
  4. Labyrinth (:56) Fractured plucking and strumming adds up to a neat little machine of sound.
  5. Landing (2:21) The most obviously recursive work here, this is like a folk song in the form of a round and is reminiscent of Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

Five Migrations is an exciting and detailed piece, full of intriguing possibilities. The last section segues naturally into Stravinsky's brief Elegie (1944), which is somber and reflective, providing an apt antechamber for the closing piece, Paul Hindemith's Sonata for solo viola, Op 11, #5 from 1923. Astringent, sometimes almost angry, Hindemith's music here seems to be pointing out something that is glaringly obvious to him but unseen by the rest of us. There is some very dense writing in the sonata, with the occasional flashy run, and Cords dispatches the many challenges with bite and flair. This is a fairly early work by Hindemith, composed before he was 30, but Cords finds a through-line and a maturity of conception that other recordings seem to have missed. It's not an immediately welcoming composition, but repeated listening reveals much to engage with.

Hindemith's final movement is called In Form und Zeitmass einer Passacaglia, which loosly translates as "in the form and correct timing of a passacaglia." Not only is this yet another instance of a composer drawing on and translating from another time and place, it also snaps us right back to where we started, with that earlier Germanic passacaglia.

The word "passacaglia" derives from Spanish words meaning "to walk the street," but what Nicholas Cords has given us on Recursions is no mere stroll but a full-on excursion through times, time, and places. Book your ticket.

Recursions is released March 12, 2013 on In A Circle Records. Catch Nicholas Cords and Brooklyn Rider in a free concert on May 5th.


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Tommy Tucker: A Hi Heel Birthday

There are two kinds of stupid in popular music. There's the Black Eyed Peas and Maroon 5 stupid, where you feel your IQ diminishing, your will to live draining away, and you begin questioning whether evolution was really worth it. Then there's the Tommy Tucker stupid, where you feel more alive, your body wants to move, and the cares of the world slip away gloriously.

"Tommy who?" you say? This is the guy who wrote (under his real name, Robert Higinbotham) and recorded Hi Heel Sneakers, one of the greatest songs of all time. Since he put it on wax in 1964, it's been recorded or performed by literally hundreds of other artists, including The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, The Faces, Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina, etc., etc. - even Rhasaan Roland Kirk! Man, what must it feel like to come up with something like that?

This little song about putting on a red dress, a wig hat, and the titular footwear for a night on the town, somehow taps into a rich seam of humanity, rendering it timeless. It just makes you feel GOOD and that's the kind of stupid I like.

Tommy Tucker died in 1982 but his song will outlive us all. Check out the original and Elvis's joyous cover below or go all in with a lightly edited Spotify playlist. Whatever you do, put on some hi heel sneakers today and dance in honor of Tommy Tucker's 80th birthday!

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Do The Cut & Paste

It all starts with Edgard Varese. In a 1997 interview, producer Teo Macero claimed Varese as a "second father," specifically citing his Poeme Electronique (1958) as the inspiration for the radical studio manipulations Macero introduced to the work of Miles Davis in the late 60's. Watching Varese assemble the pieces of his remarkable Poeme must have triggered something in Macero's mind: recorded music (and sound) is plastic, in the original meaning of the word. Today, the idea of jamming with musicians and then looping, editing and adding to that material to manipulate it into a composition is just one tool in the record-making arsenal, and a common one at that. But when Miles Davis's In A Silent Way was released in 1969 the idea of taking whole sections of recorded music, copying them and splicing them to other sections, essentially composing in the studio, was a rare thing indeed.

So that makes Varese the spiritual father of so much of today's music, including Atoms For Peace, the extra-curricular project of Radiohead's Thom Yorke, which has just released its long-awaited debut album, Amok. The all-star group was originally formed to do live shows of material from The Eraser, Yorke's solo album from 2006. Including Radiohead's producer Nigel Godrich, Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass, studio maven Joey Waronker (Beck, etc.) on drums and Marco Refosco on percussion, the band put in studio time over the past few years, creating a wealth of material for Yorke and Godrich to work with.

Since I find Red Hot Chili Peppers loathsome, I will admit to some anxiety around Flea's involvement with Atoms For Peace. I needn't have worried, however, as he avoids the dreaded thumb and seems to take more inspiration from Jah Wobble than attempting Larry Graham, blending perfectly with the other musicians. The end result is a consistently fascinating assemblage of Afro-pop guitars, deep bass, chattering percussion and rich electronic sounds, from chordal washes to astringent jabs of sound, all with Yorke's feather-light voice, often in falsetto, floating above. Amok is a great headphones album, with layers of sound buried in the mix, waiting to be teased out with repeated listens.

There are no songwriting credits per se, but it is safe to assume that York's melodic and lyrical interests were the strongest influence on how the songs finally shaped up. In both cases it follows close on the heels of Radiohead's The King of Limbs, which contained similarly ambiguous harmonies, circular melodies and, in the words, a general sense of anomie and bruised disillusionment. On the whole, however, it's a more satisfying album than TKOL, feeling more complete and less like a blueprint for endless remixes, although I'm sure there will plenty of those to come.

For anyone familiar with Radiohead, there is nothing intrinsically surprising about Amok, but working with some new collaborators has definitely introduced more dynamics and rhythmic flexibility into what we've come to expect from records featuring Thom Yorke. As wonderful as Amok is, it should be said that it seems to continue a retreat from the more soulful and direct communication represented by In Rainbows, which is sounding more and more like a culmination of sorts with each passing year.

In the same interview, Teo Macero also illuminated the process that led to such towering achievements as Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and other classics from Miles Davis's first electric period: "His stuff was mostly written down. I mean it was worked out in the studio. But I would record from the time he got there...until he left. And then...I would edit everything."

But before Miles and his musicians entered the studio, the music was also worked out on the road. We have ample evidence of that part of the process on an extraordinary new set, Live In Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2, which features four concerts from the fertile period in 1969, between In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The band here, featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Chick Corea on (mostly electric) piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, was famously short-lived although each member was part of the expanded ensemble that made Bitches Brew. Versions of moody masterpiece Miles Runs The Voodoo Down recorded in Antibes a month before the Bitches Brew sessions, as well as Wayne Shorter's Sanctuary, which appeared on the same album in a very different form, provide a feast for the analytic mind when comparing them to their well-known studio takes.

But analysis is mostly shunted aside by the spectacular and fiery attack of this group, which played without pause each night, blasting through a varied set of old and new material. Miles was in a period of transition and this collection showcases one fulcrum point in his legendary career, with two concerts before the Bitches Brew sessions and two after. One thing that is immediately clear is that he was in top form, playing with power and blasting off 16th note runs with impunity, applying a style he perfected in his previous period to the new electric context. As he got deeper into rock and funk, his trumpet playing included more atmospheric textures, rhythmic wah wah excursions, and he began a deepening involvement with playing the organ. Some of that was due to the poor health (from drug use and other factors) that led to his retirement in 1975. But not here - he leads the band with command and control, taking classic tunes like Nefertiti to new and more dynamic heights and presenting new material with an assured swagger.

The fourth disc in the set is a DVD, featuring a concert in November 1969 in Berlin filmed in living color. It's well-edited and makes for illuminating viewing - Miles and the band were completely engaged and listening carefully to each other. The concert, like all the shows presented is brilliant, full of complex interplay, melodic invention and occasionally touching on the outskirts of free jazz. Though there is nothing tentative about these concerts, Miles and his players were still finding their way in the new world they were creating. Some of that future included Teo Macero in the editing room, cutting and pasting, but Live In Europe 1969 is a glorious reminder of the potency of live, uncut performances, and is now an essential part of the story of Miles Davis.