Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras

Earlier this year, I reviewed Orli Shaham's Brahms Inspired, which featured new compositions alongside the works by old Johannes that sparked their creation. This may be an idea whose time has come as we now have Ispirare by violist Melia Watras, which features two newer works and the pieces that inspired them, plus a bonus Watras was inspired to record because of the inspiration of one of the new composers. Got that?

To quote Julian Craster, the composer from The Red Shoes, "Nothing matters but the music!" - so let's get on with it. The first piece is George Rochberg's 1979 Sonata, performed here with accompaniment from pianist Winston Choi. Rochberg was an American Serialist who famously rejected that controversial form in the 1960's and turned to a sort of mid-century neo-romanticism. In practice, at least in the Sonata, that ends up sounding a bit like 1950's Shostakovich, with sharp dance rhythms and broad melodic statements. While it is not a particularly memorable piece, it's a perfectly pleasant and honest listening experience. 

What really shines in the Rochberg is the performance and the recording. Ispirare is on the Sono Luminus label, which first came to my attention with In The Light Of Air, a staggering album of Anna Thorvaldsdottir's work performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble. [I should review it, but in case I don't have time here's the rub: GET IT.] Like that record, Ispirare is distinguished by a stunning recording, which translates in this case to a real sense of the personality of not only Watras' playing but of her instrument itself. In short, you can hear the wood, in all its depth and humanity. This is something richer than "perfect sound" and on a good system it's astonishing. 

Of course, you can only pay attention to the sound because Watras and Choi are such consummate musicians. It's a shame Rochberg didn't live to hear their performance - I doubt it can be bettered. Speaking of Choi, thanks to the liner notes I will now be seeking out his release of Elliott Carter's complete piano music. However, he is absent on the Rochberg-inspired Caprice Four (George) by Atar Arad, a composer who also taught Watras. 

This short piece, from 2003, is one of a series of a dozen caprices Arad composed as "thank you notes" to composers he admired. While he quotes from Rochberg, the mood of his work is entirely different, with an elegiac and mournful turn and much less adhesion to conventional form. Arad also makes good use of the edges of the Viola's sound and Watras brings his music to life with ease.

No disrespect intended, but both Rochberg and Arad are quickly forgotten when the plainchant opening of Luciano Berio's Black is the color... cuts into the atmosphere like an ancient scimitar. This is just a small part of Berio's Folk Songs project but it may be the most essential. Unlike Rochberg, Berio never tied himself to any movement whatsoever, confidently pursuing his interests wherever they led him. 

A quick survey of recordings of the Folk Songs finds a lot of issues, either with the sonics or the vocal approach. Watras has not only Sono Luminus on her side but also singer Galia Arad (yes, Atal's daughter...small world). Galia has established herself not only as a singer with a tone both lush and direct, but also as an accomplished songwriter. This gives her the freedom to settle into the structure of Berio's conception without concern about "classical" vocal style. She is understated but strong, more than a match for the searing, soaring playing by Watras. It's less than three minutes long but you will beg for hours. 

Berio's song was the choice of Shulamit Ran, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer with roots in Israel. In tribute she came up with Perfect Storm, a 10 minute long solo viola piece that should be quickly taken up by players on the hunt for such repertoire. It feels like an expansion of the slight brutality of the Berio, very song-like and in no way polite. There's an emotional savagery to it that is very satisfying. This world premiere recording sets a high bar but I am hopeful that Perfect Storm will find its place in the culture. 

As mentioned above, Watras was so enamored of Ran's choice that she picked another Berio piece to end the album. Titled Naturale (su melodie siciliane), it is a continuation of his work with folk idioms, although with a southern Italian flair as opposed to the Appalachian bent of Black is the color...  Naturale, at 20 minutes the most substantial piece on Ispirare, features percussion (well-handled by Matthew Kocmieroski) and a startling recording of a Sicilian folksinger singing guttural Italian phrases from time to time. 

But the viola is the star and you feel Berio reveling in its dark and dimensional timbre while exploring its considerable range. Watras feels completely at home in Berio's world, carving her line in the ether like a rivulet of lava in a mountainside. Her performance here has left me desperate to hear her take on Voci, Berio's full-scale viola concerto. While she's at it, she could assay his Sequenza VI for solo viola. Boom - I've just planned out her next album. 

And that's really my only quibble with Ispirare. The Berio-Ran-Berio sequence of the second half is so much stronger than the Rochberg and Atar that the album feels slightly unbalanced. Maybe a playlist with the last three tracks first, leaving the Rochberg and Atar as a palate cleanser would make more emotional sense. But listen for yourself first, and soon. Don't let my critical inquiries come between you and some very fine - and inspired -  music. 

You might also enjoy:
A Pair From Plum
Conversing Across The Centuries, Part 1: Orli Shaham & Brahms
Conversing Across The Centuries, Part 2: Italia
Pianos In Contex

Monday, October 19, 2015

Born In 1944

Today in 1944 saw the birth of both George McCrae and Peter Tosh, two musicians who have given me much happiness since my childhood.

Hearing McCrae's Rock Your Baby would alternately have me feeling slightly melancholy and tapping my toes - it still has much the same effect. The proto-disco song was co-written by Casey (KC) and Finch of KC & The Sunshine Band and came out of the TK Records system, just one of Henry Stone's landmark projects.

Give a listen - does it make you feel good, too?

George's wife Gwen was also a beneficiary of the genius of TK, having a hit with Rocking Chair, which was included on an excellent album of the same name.

But Gwen was actually born in December 1943 so pardon the digression. I just love that TK sound!

Peter Tosh made his mark as a member of The Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer. He had a uniquely deep voice and a folk-based songwriting sensibility that worked very well in the context of the Jamaican genres he worked in from ska to reggae.

After he and Bob could no longer work together (and Bunny retreated to the hills), Tosh had a strong solo career, especially out of the gate with the Legalize It and Equal Rights albums. 

I think the moment he became crucial to me was watching the classic reggae movie Rockers at a midnight show somewhere when I was in high school. Stepping Razor came on the soundtrack and I had to have it! That soundtrack was in seriously high rotation for at least a year. It may be that his ultra-tough image came tragically home to roost in 1987 when he was gunned down in his own house.

I once heard a radio broadcast where Tosh introduced one of his songs as being for "the intellectual herb smoker," which was quite accurate. Although his patois was often darkly humorous (Chris Blackwell became "Chris Whitewrong" in his parlance) he was fundamentally a serious dude. That made it all the more delightful when he hooked up with that old scamp Mick Jagger to cover Smokey Robinson's Don't Look Back, originally recorded by The Temptations.

Tosh and Jagger's wickedly good version was actually the second time the reggae magus had sung the song. The first time was back in 1966 under The Wailers name. Although the song was written by Smokey Robinson and Marley was far away, trying to make ends meet in Delaware or Detroit, the song was credited to him! There's no music biz like the Jamaican music biz.

There's your 1944 rabbit hole for today. If you want to go deeper into the world of Henry Stone, check out the playlist below.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Not The Price But The Cost

Lloyd Price, the untold story.
In 1969, 17 years after his first million seller, Lloyd Price nearly cracked the R&B Top 20 with the funky social criticism of Bad Conditions. "Psychedelic age on campus grounds/Tear gas, billy clubs and vicious hounds/People making promises that they can't keep/System's turning over for its final sleep/We're living in bad conditions!" That's a long way from Lawdy Miss Clawdy. It's also quite an accomplishment for a founding father of rock and roll to so successfully insert himself into late 60's culture. 

Lloyd Price NOW!, the album that contains Bad Conditions, also delivers credible takes on Light My Fire, Hey Jude, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, For Once In My Life, and other songs. It's a solid album, with Price in fine, soulful voice, but you won't hear a word about it in sumdumhonky, Price's new memoir. Except for a picture caption, you also won't hear a thing about how he ended up working with Don King to produce the notorious Rumble In The Jungle, or about how one of his labels released early sides by Wilson Pickett.

What you will hear a lot - and I mean A LOT - about is Price's disturbing and disgusting experiences with racism in the Jim Crow south. Growing up in Kenner, LA in the 1930's was a profoundly demoralizing experience for anyone of a darker tone, ruled as they were by all the iterations of "sumdumhonky" you can imagine, and some you likely can't. Casting a long shadow over Price's childhood was Ol' Jake, the barely literate local lawman. His idea of a good time was to hang around the railroad tracks with his friends, lying in wait for Price and other kids. "They'd stand to block our path and laugh their asses off. We were scared half to death because we didn't know what they might do next," Price writes in Who Feared Whom, the first chapter. "Sometimes they'd grab one of our hands and hold it to their ass and laugh while they farted on it and scream, "Boy, spot that!" This is what they called having fun: scaring little boys who were just eight and nine years old."

This is obviously horrendous and, along with cross-burning and lynching, forms a background which would be a challenge for the strongest among men to overcome. As Price puts it: "As we grow older we tend to let our minds review our souls and sometimes we are amazed at ourselves - and the things our hearts have withstood. As I see it now, the white man of my younger days was a master sociologist - and a brutal one at that - because he knew how to downplay a black man's pride, not taking account of the fact that we had limited opportunities." 

But overcome it Price did, following his desire to make music and also help support his family in the wake of his father's workplace injury. Of course, becoming a national celebrity with Lawdy Miss Clawdy at the age of 17 came with its own challenges, some of them the usual music biz tales of woe, some of them due to becoming a prominent black man in an America that rejected the very notion. Also, there's the fact that his music had a way of bringing black and white kids together on the dance floor in a society where race-mixing just wasn't done. Understand, Lawdy hit in 1952, which puts Price on the leading edge of both the rock and roll and civil rights revolutions.

But what of the music? Where did it come from and what were the roots of Price's creativity? Besides a few paragraphs here and there, we get precious little about it. We also don't hear much about trying to stay relevant in the rapidly changing world of pop culture - no thoughts on the British Invasion, the rise of James Brown and funk, not to mention disco and hip hop. While he does have some interesting things to say about being placed in the "oldie but goodie" ghetto, he spends more time asking questions with no answers like "Can you imagine an entire race of people who are afraid that God didn't like black people?"

Don't get me wrong - the tales of late-night drives through Mississippi in a brand new Cadillac or of bribing his way into Nigeria only to find "people, black people, peeing and pooping on the road" - range from harrowing to hilarious and are written vividly. But I ultimately found sumdumhonky to be an unsatisfying read. I couldn't help but feel that Ol' Jake might have won the day after all. To my mind, this makes Price's experience of racism even more tragic. It also makes sumdumhonky an important but deeply flawed book.

When I got sumdumhonky, I turned first to the pictures. Great shots abound - the trip to Hollywood for the 1953 Cash Box awards, getting down in a huge-collared jumpsuit in 1968, receiving an honorary doctorate in 2001. When I looked back at the photos after finishing the book, I was struck by the chasm between the story they told and the one the words depicted. Perhaps a good, tough editor or co-writer could have helped bring the two closer together.

One gift the book gave me was the discovery of Price's later music. Perhaps you'll enjoy it, too - here's a quick mix.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

Hamilton and I In "Deluxe Shipping" Moment

Robert Johnson, they say, met the devil at a crossroads and bargained his soul for a dramatic improvement in his guitar playing. While I doubt souls were exchanged, something certainly happened when Hamilton Leithauser spent time with Robin Pecknold during a joint tour by The Walkmen and Fleet Foxes. Since then, Leithauser has sung like a goddamned angel, with an ease and confidence that I would not have predicted while playing the early Walkmen records again and again. And on last year's debut solo album, Black Hours, he wrote a set of songs that fit his new Great American Songbook vocal swagger to a T. 

As I noted in my review of Black Hours, even though The Walkmen were on hiatus, their guitarist, Paul Maroon, had not left Leithauser's side, appearing on nearly every song on the album. So I was unsurprised when I got word that Hamilton's latest record, Dear God, would be co-credited to Maroon. I was surprised, however, at the opportunity to meet Hamilton as part of a very limited "deluxe shipping" offer through his Etsy store

It took a little time but it eventually happened, which is how I ended up talking to Hamilton on the sidewalk while his two kids waited patiently in their carseats. I didn't bring up Pecknold or demonic bargains, but I did note that he and Maroon seemed to have a fruitful musical bromance ("Like Bowie & Ronson," I said - he got a kick out of that!). I wondered why only the new album had both their names, even though Maroon was such an elemental part of Black Hours. It seemed to have a lot to do with the origin of the songs on that album, and also the fact that two of them were collaborations with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.

Dear God, Leithauser told me, came out of the idea that it would just be him singing and Maroon on one instrument for each song. "Paul cheated a little and used a sampler on a couple of songs, but that was the basic idea." He also confirmed that this was a vinyl only release and that they would be playing these songs in concert - check your local listings

Naturally, due to the original conceit, Dear God is a much more intimate album than the big and bold Black Hours, a Cassavetes character study instead of a big Hollywood production. But it is an equally masterful example of singing and songwriting in the American vein. It is also partly Leithauser's meditation on where sees his place in that tradition, sprinkling four covers among its 13 tracks. Tom Paxton's Annie's Going To Sing Her Song is a hushed waltz in the original but Leithauser takes off on the version Bob Dylan recorded during the Self Portrait sessions, which was released on Another Self Portrait last year. Dylan put some new angles into the chorus, making it more of a hook. It's even more angular in Leithauser's version, which I believe to be definitive. 

While I'm not a fan of Will Oldham (or Palace Music, or Bonnie Prince Billy, or whatever he's calling himself these days), Leithauser pulls something out of his Trudy Dies that makes it more memorable than the original, playing his vocal dynamics off of Maroon's steady acoustic picking to give the song more shape. 

The Everly Brothers are one of those weird bands that are indubitably part of the bedrock of modern music but that I don't always like. Some of their songs are devastatingly good while others are grating and formulaic. The song Hamilton chose, Just One Time, is one of the latter but he and Maroon take all the obnoxious right out of it, playing it like a distant memory, with double-tracked vocals, harmonica, and a hypnotic, droning acoustic strum. It's still a slight song, without the simple profundity of, say, Buddy Holly, but it works well in Dear God's context - more on that later.

The album takes its name not from the XTC song - THAT would have been interesting - but rather from an early Patsy Cline song written by V.F. Stewart, known for the oft-covered Just Out Of Reach. Leithauser gives Cline's country waltz a bit of a barroom flavor, with Maroon's upright piano soldiering on bravely. It's a Sunday morning song transformed into a drinking song and it ends the album on a witty and rueful note.

The four songs covered could be seen as a short survey of some of what Leithauser and Maroon are attracted to in American song - waltz rhythms, melancholy lyrics, sing-along choruses - and their own tunes follow these threads to some interesting places. Proud Irene opens side one with piano filigrees setting the stage for a classic-sounding chord sequence. Hamilton enters with a hushed tone, singing close to the mike. The chorus is just the one word: "Irene," but you still want to join in. It's a clever bit of misdirection and a sign of their deep understanding of song form. 

Utica Avenue features Maroon on organ and a chorus of Leithausers singing funereally. In fact, my wife just requested it for her services when the unimaginable comes to pass - that's a tough playlist to write for, but these guys nailed it. Trudy Dies is next, followed by Light Sleeper, a melodic piano study by Maroon, and then Dad Is Drunk, with Maroon picking a circular riff on electric guitar. "There's wine on my breath, and wine in my pocket, and wine waiting for me, where I dropped it," Hamilton sings without a note of regret. Later, the singer claims to be "hopelessly optimistic," wishing to turn "black eyes white." There's a story here, but it's given to us in fragments. Paxton's song closes out the side, the perfect follow up to Dad Is Drunk: "Annie's gonna sing her song called take me back again." Maybe mom is drunk, too. 

Side two fades in on Two Dark Summers On Long Island, which would almost fit on The Velvet Underground's third album. Maroon's folky picking has a bleak tinge and he uses those cheating samplers to create a spooky atmosphere. Hamilton sings along with himself, some half-remembered tale hinted at by the title. Just One Time becomes just another memory, now, with How And Why? completing the thought: "You were always on my side," Hamilton sings over and over again, hinting at betrayal and loss. 

Your Swingin' Doors is even more mournful at first, but Hamilton raises the temperature to rage against the dying of the light. I Never Should Have Left Washington, DC is a reworking of Utrecht, a bonus track from Black Hours. It's just as brilliant a song in this stripped down version and sets the stage for Loyalty Road, a haunting guitar instrumental with a strong narrative drive. Then comes the redemptive request of Dear God to send us home. 

Dear God is a bravely bare setting for Leithauser to display his vocal talents and he is more than up to the task. With The Walkmen, and now beyond, he is carving a unique place in the American musical firmament and observing the process has been an involving and emotional experience. And like the best stories, I can't wait to see what happens next. 

In fact, he and Maroon have hinted at the next chapter with I Could Have Sworn, a five-song EP that includes Utica Avenue and four new songs, the latter with drummer Hugh McIntosh. Opener My Reward is an uptempo number with slashing chords and Leithauser pushing his voice ragged. New England Crows has Maroon giving us a hint of Johnny Marr but Leithauser is at his most intense, especially in a thrilling wordless section. Cry Out For Me is a pop explosion with a Chuck Berry song buried deep within. Immediately Alone is all shimmer and sigh with a gorgeous piano backdrop from Maroon bringing us full circle to where Dear God started.
You may also like:
New Americana Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Make Time For Black Hours
Best Of 12: Part Two
2011: The Year In Live (Part Two)

Sunday, October 04, 2015

New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook

Phil Cook, kicking things off with the Guitarheels at Rough Trade last month.

Even if you haven't heard of Phil Cook, chances are you've heard him. If you were seeking more Justin Vernon after having your mind blown by Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago you would have come across DeYarmond Edison, the somewhat somber folk-rock band that included both Vernon and Cook. Then there was Megafaun, the band Phil formed with his brother Brad and drummer Joe Westerlund after DeYarmond broke up. Their sound was on the haunting end of "freak folk," but while accomplished and interesting it could sometimes grow aimless. Google would also give you Gayngs, an indie supergroup with Vernon, Cook, and members of Polica, Doomtree, etc., that produced a sort of slippery art-yacht rock.

I was tracking all of this without totally falling down the rabbit hole, finding more satisfaction in Volcano Choir, another Justin Vernon side project. Then came a moment when Phil Cook became a real person to me, rather than just a hyperlinked name on a wide variety of Wikipedia posts. I was in the first flush of infatuation (now a deep and abiding love) with Hiss Golden Messenger's brilliant Lateness Of Dancers, to which Cook contributed mightily. They were performing on WFUV so I dialed up the video and was stunned. There was M.C. Taylor, the principal member of HGM surrounded by musicians who were just so into it that I had to know more. I especially wanted to know who it was helping Taylor produce the hypnotic guitar weave of Southern Grammar and playing the sweet slide on Lucia. That was Phil Cook, as it happened, and his commitment was magnetic.

So when his new album, Southland Mission, was announced, I was primed. It was being promoted as his first, although he had released some beautiful if studied work a few years ago under the name Phil Cook & His Feat. This felt different from the get-go. For one thing, there was Phil, big as life on the cover, Buddy Holly glasses and all. Here was a guy coming out of the shadows, no longer hiding as either a session musician or band member, or behind his roots-music scholarship.

The first song, Ain't It Sweet, bears this impression out immediately. After some bluesy strumming and a bit of barrel-house piano it busts out into an all-American gospel-inflected boogie, with fiddle, massed vocals, and a delirious slide guitar solo. Yes, it is sweet - very. And when I saw Phil launch his tour at Rough Trade last month he leapt into that solo like a man let out of a cage. I think he literally kicked his heels. It was beautiful to watch and the members of his seven-piece band were having as much fun as he was.

There was actually an eighth member of the band, though it went un-introduced. This was the tube amp Cook uses to get his signature over-driven, fiery guitar sound. He didn't need to wear a Staples Singers t-shirt (though he was) to reveal his debt to Pops Staples, whose trademark shimmer gives deep roots to everyone from John Fogerty, Tony Joe White and Robbie Robertson. But as his high-kicking performance showed time and again, Cook owns his material, bringing his deep knowledge of the American musical tapestry forward though commitment (that word again) and love.

Phil Cook gets into it at Rough Trade.
The second cut on Southland Mission is a faithful but richly elaborated version of Charlie Parr's 1922 Blues, a great song in the traditional vein that benefits from Cook's studio skills, ably helped by his brother Brad and a big group of like-minded souls. Great Tide draws on some of Sister Rosetta Tharp's big-chord power, with more slide from Cook. Belong blends fiddle, banjo and mandolin, creating a nice bed for Cook's warm tenor voice. It flirts with a hoe-down but never feels clich├ęd.

Sitting On A Fence Too Long cleverly forms the spine of the nine song album: "Don't want to die here in the middle, sitting on a fence too long." It's a sly stomp that becomes a sing-along (in concert, literally) that makes me want to hear Cook and company cover Black Water by The Doobie Brothers. Lowly Road is pure blues-gospel hypnotism with a neat little screamer of a riff. Addictive stuff. Pops Staples would approve and he would probably also dig the chorus of "If you want to get to Jesus, you gotta walk that lowly road." If this is Christian rock, gimme more.

At Rough Trade we learned that Time To Wake Up is a reverse lullaby for Cook's son Ellis, who apparently has trouble getting up from his nap. Cook had us all singing it, bringing us into the family. Anybody Else is pure warmth, an extremely well-written song that could hold its own with nearly any American 70's classic. Call it Southland Mission's secret weapon if you want - whatever you call it, you will hit repeat. The album ends with Gone, a tight southern rocker that features a star turn from genius bass player Cameron Ralston, known for his work with Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass.

In concert, the bass duties were handled by the incredible Michael Libramento, who I last saw holding down the low end for Natalie Prass. The band, known as the Guitarheels, also included Ryan Gustafson on guitars, who had opened the show as The Dead Tongues. Gustafson can play anything with strings apparently, and has a way with an Appalachian melody, but I liked him best when he let it rip a bit on Cook's songs. Libramento and Gustafson put the level of musicianship at a high level that night and every song achieved liftoff. Surprisingly, the fiddle player was a pick-up, an NYU student who joined the band at sound check and fit right in by the time we got there.

The Dead Tongues (Ryan Gustafson) with strings at Rough Trade.

It was a joyful show, a coming out party for a real-deal musician and songwriter. He also proved to be as nice a guy as you can imagine, hanging out after lights-up until Rough Trade staff asked us to move along. I did have one purely selfish question for him. "Does all this mean you won't be with Hiss Golden Messenger when they play Baby's All Right in November?" After a minute of calculating his schedule, which fills October with 20 dates in 20 cities in Europe and the UK, he assured me that he would be there. That's going to be quite a night for me and, as of now, will be your next opportunity to get a taste of the Phil Cook magic in New York. Until then, get Southland Mission and have your own private revival meeting.

You might also like:
The Surprising Natalie Prass
Matthew E. White: Seeking Transcendence
No Longer A Big Inner
Repaving The Way To A Fantastic Fall
The Best of 14