Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf

Adventurous listening does not always require leaving your sonic comfort zone. Sometimes unfamiliar music can instantly become an old friend, expanding your world without shattering it. And sometimes the opposite is the case - and wonderfully so. Those are the ends of the spectrum of new music explored by two cellists, Laura Metcalf and Michael Nicolas, who will both release excellent debut albums on Sono Luminus this spring. 

First up is Laura Metcalf, who has been on the scene for a number of years now playing in the ensembles Sybarite5, a string quintet mostly known for its Radiohead arrangements, and Break of Reality, a "cello rock band" that does a spirited take on the Game Of Thrones theme, among other things.

Metcalf's First Day is something quite different from her other activities, finding her assaying eight pieces from around the world and through the centuries with the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Matei Varga. The album opens beautifully with Varga's stylish introduction to Graciela y Buenos Aires by José Bragato, an Argentinian cellist, composer and conductor who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. You don't have to know the first thing about Bragato to hear his connection to "nuevo tango" and Astor Piazzola, with whom he in fact played in the 1950's. When Metcalf joins in, her tone is flawless and warm and her rhythmic command is thrilling and almost imperious in the faster portions. Instantly you know you're in good hands with this duo, and the rest of the album does not disappoint. 

If Bragato represents the the modern, urban Argentina, later in the album Metcalf and Varga take a trip to the countryside with Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana No. 2, Op. 21. Full of folky melodies and touched with nostalgia, the Pampeana covers a lot of ground in ten minutes. But first we visit an eastern European past in Bohuslav Martinu's Variations on a Slovakian Theme, with Metacalf's approach mercifully free of schmalz. She seems more invested in the sturdiness of the old melodies than in over-emoting. Martinu's piece is essentially episodic but if you want a sonata, First Day has it with George Enescu's Sonata In F Minor, a recently discovered work written when the Romanian composer was only 17. It may have a youthful energy and sparkle, but it is a fully mature work in the romantic vein and Metcalf and Varga have done a real service by bringing it to light. 

North America and the 21st Century are also well-represented on The First Day, with Phantasie by Caleb Burhans, a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, and Hard-Knock Stomp by Dan Visconti, whose work is often performed by Sybarite5. The first lives up to it's title, with lush cello lines interacting with repetitive and ruminative piano. Visconti's is the more radical work, full of sly, bluesy riffs and some dense knotty passages, all of which Metcalf handles with ease. It's a lot of fun and the levity it injects into the album sequence is welcome. It also leads perfectly into the oldest piece here, Marin Marais' Variations on "La Folia" from 1701, one folly in dialog with another. 

The Marais is elegant, tuneful, and filled with drawing-room dance rhythms - in short, a delight. But Metcalf saves a real delight for another French piece: the closing track, Francis Poulenc's Les chemins de l'amour. This piece, from 1940, is Poulenc's setting of words by Jean Anouilh and asks the cellist to sing along as she plays. Metcalf is pure charm here, playing the waltz with absolute lightness and singing in a clear unmannered soprano. It's a most satisfying ending to a rich and rewarding album, which quickly establishes Laura Metcalf on her own as a musician of real note. Brava!

The First Day is out on April 29th and Metcalf and Varga will be playing selections on April 27th at Subculture on Bleecker Street.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Vinyl And Grit: RSD 16

There is a lot of vinyl in the world, and much of it is by Roy Ayers (and much of the rest is by Willie Bobo). That was one conclusion I came to while flipping through the stacks of wax at Superior Elevation Records in a gritty section of Bushwick this past Record Store Day. I now understand why Ayers called his group Ubiquity. I also now realize that I don't know much of his music, which is a failing I plan to rectify thanks to Spotify. 

Speaking of the streaming service, it has forever altered the way I shop for vinyl. Now I have an ongoing calculation in my head, with some kind of equation of desirability, availability, price, and condition helping me determine how I will ultimately allocate my limited budget of both cash and storage space. The end result of all of this sorting is another dialogue in my head relating to all the records I don't choose to buy, a dialogue that mostly dissipates at the end of the shopping trip. Not this time, though. Using my search terms in Spotify, I reconstructed the trail I followed as I flipped and flipped, creating the playlist below. So now I - and you - can follow up on those tangents. 

But fear not, record stores, I am still interested in buying and my time at Superior Elevation led to some very happy purchases. In fact, my wife declared it my "best Record Store Day ever!" Part of the credit goes of course to the shop itself, which is spacious, well-organized, and friendly. Superior Elevation was my favorite vendor at last year's Brooklyn Flea record fair, so I had been meaning to get out there for a while. Their RSD event was a draw, as they were celebrating their first anniversary with a rotating cast of DJ's, sales, and freebies. I also had a 15% off coupon they had given me at the Flea - good move.
Good vibes and good vinyl at Superior Elevation
Within minutes of entering I had my hands on a copy of Fotheringay's first album, which is something I've wanted for a while. Fotheringay was the band formed by Sandy Denny with Trevor Lucas after she left Fairport Convention and I like it better than anything by that band, with one perfect song after another.It wasn't the original pressing but a nice reissue on Carthage from the 80's, complete with the gatefold cover. Score.

I went through the rest of their rock section but, let's face it, that's the bread and butter of my collection. Superior has a standout soul-funk section, though, so I was elbow-deep in there for a while and finally ended up with Law Of The Land from 1973 by The Undisputed Truth. For some reason, this 70's Motown group has been left behind in the reissue boom, with much of their stuff beyond the greatest hits (Smiling Faces Sometimes, for one) largely forgotten. The thing I love about them is that they were the perfect laboratory for psychedelic-soul genius Norman Whitfield. He just lets every epic, widescreen impulse burst into perfect reality, as on the title track. There's also a great cover of Dave Mason's Feelin' Alright, which is one of those songs I can't get enough versions of. Sold.

Next up was reggae, which was a smaller section but full of interesting stuff, much of it pricy. I was very intrigued with a Gregory Isaacs collection but double checked and found that I already have it with a different cover - saved by the internet! I did find a real gem though, a Jamaican pressing of Derrick Harriott's 14 Chart Buster Hits, which is a stunning retrospective of the seminal singer-producer's biggest songs from 1962-71, including great takes on Close To Me and Have You Seen Her, along with a number of sweet self-penned tunes, many of which should be revived by contemporary singers looking for something new.

While I was looking through the jazz, the DJ was playing a fantastic late disco song that had me dancing. I asked him what it was and it was nobody I had heard of (but wish I could remember!), but he added "It's really a lost Leon Ware album," referring to the singer-songwriter-producer best known for his work on Marvin Gaye's I Want You. Before going to pay, I casually thumbed through some sale items, coming across Nuff Said, which may the great lost Ike & Tina album - coincidentally featuring six Leon Ware co-writes. It was kismet and it was $2.00 for a super-funky and consistent album. Done deal.

Another conclusion I came to before paying was that if you have any vintage Brazilian or African vinyl, you can practically name your price. I will not be cashing in on my Chico Buarque albums anytime soon, however - I like them too much! In contrast to that very expensive stock were the free albums on the sidewalk, many put out to pasture due to their rough condition. One I'm glad I grabbed was Chico Hamilton's El Chico, featuring the great Gabor Szabo on guitar, shining especially bright on a sublime version of People. Some of the album, in original mono, is unplayable - but I might never have heard it otherwise. That's the magic of record shopping, and I got a big hit of it on Saturday. How did you spend the day?

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Bronx Cheer For RSD
RSD 2014
Everybody, Get In Line: RSD 2015

Friday, April 08, 2016

Top 10 Unlikely Covers

I'm a big fan of artists stepping out of their comfort zone - or maybe it's really our comfort zone - and covering a song that would seem to be out of their bailiwick. Exploiting what could be called the "sincerity gap," wherein a song that seems kind of like a joke is given a new level of emotion, is often a key to success. For exhibit A see number one on my list of Top Ten Unlikely Covers. What are your favorites?

Aztec Camera - Jump Maybe I suck because this is my favorite Aztec Camera recording and I know they are a bit of a sacred cow. I'm a big Van Halen fan (DLR years only!) so I was delighted to hear a completely different approach to the splashy, synth-driven MTV monster that was Jump. The best thing about this was the absolute lack of irony. Something tells me Roddy Frame likes VH as much as I do. Still waiting on that Hot For Teacher cover.

Natalie Prass - Caught Up In The Rapture
As I noted in my review of her show at Bowery Ballroom last year, the Spacebomb chanteuse is a sucker for slinky R&B. On this version of the Anita Baker smash from 1986, she put her mouth where her moneymaker is. Wait, that didn't come out right...just listen.

Sly & The Family Stone - Que Sera Sera
After There's A Riot Going On Sly's rep started going downhill, with blown concerts and "unreliable" behavior alienating fans, critics, and collaborators. He didn't necessarily help his cause by covering a song made famous by Doris Day, sung here by sister Rose Stone. But when he wails on the chorus, it sounds like he means every word. 

The Wailers - Sugar Sugar
While the Monkees were a fake rock group that became real, The Archies, being cartoons, never had that opportunity. They weren't bad, they were just drawn that way. But the songs were real enough and Sugar Sugar was as good as any other bubblegum song. After all, Jeff Barry wrote most of the songs for the real groups, too. But when The Wailers put it to a hip-swiveling rocksteady groove it took on a different connotation. A couple of years later Bob was singing about Marcus who had candy tar all over his chocolate bar in Kinky Reggae - wonder where he got that idea?

Radiohead - Nobody Does It Better
This is firmly in the Aztec Camera camp. You can just tell that Thom Yorke thinks this classic James Bond theme by Carly Simon is a fabulous song. He really gives it his all and it helps that it fits his voice like a glove. I wonder if there's a studio recording of this somewhere in the Radiohead archives.

Emmylou Harris - May This Be Love
We probably have Daniel Lanois to thank for getting Emmylou to explore this deep cut from Are You Experienced? No matter whose idea it was, it is just gorgeous and invites a whole new understanding of Hendrix's songcraft. 

The Isley Brothers - Love The One You're With
By 1970, The Isley Brothers had earned the right to do pretty much whatever they wanted, having had their first hit in 1959. Still, one would not have pegged them to be Stephen Stills fans. One thing that's cool about their version is that they play it fairly straight, adding just a little grit to the original, which was already little funky, and reveling in the harmonies.

Hole - Credit In The Straight World
There is something so self-contained, even precious, about the one album released by Young Marble Giants, that until I heard this it was unimaginable that someone would cover one of their songs. It was a canny choice for Hole, however, as it fit their sound nicely while also providing some more melodic colors to Live Through This. It was also a nice bit of curation and likely introduced many people to the genius of YMG.

Yo La Tengo - Friday I'm In Love
While my favorite Yo La Tengo usually involves Ira Kaplan wailing on his guitar, they do have a nice sideline in covers, exemplified by their lovely folk-rock take on this 90's classic. The original version by The Cure seemed a little unlikely as well, pushing Robert Smith and co. toward the environs of shimmering pop.

The Staples Singers - Slippery People

While the lyrical content of the Talking Heads song might seem a little more oblique than the average gospel song, there was no doubt about the origin of those call and response vocals. The Staples Singers were already legends when they put this out but their cover version reawakened interest in their career for a whole new audience. In any case, Mavis Staples must have really connected with the song as she still performs it regularly.

Bonus Cut:

Freddie Hubbard - Cold Turkey
Here's one from another side of the aisle. Jazz musicians covering pop songs goes back to at least the 30's and we even had folks like Ramsay Lewis giving the treatment to Beatles songs in the late 60's. But hearing hard-charging Miles Davis protege Hubbard take on John Lennon's heroin-withdrawal nightmare of a song has a bit more of a frisson than the usual pop-jazz stylings you would expect. Unlike some other songs in this vein, I doubt this was a bid for pop success!

Unfortunately, even in today's streaming-centric world, there is no one place that I could find that had complete versions of all these songs. This YouTube playlist is the best I could do...What are your favorites?

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Merle Haggard: No Stranger To Me

I'm sure Mark Seliger won't mind me borrowing this photo.
He started all of this anyway.
I'm a country music dilettante. There, I said it. All I need is some Hank Williams, Dwight Yoakam - and Merle Haggard. Sure, Johnny Cash is a monolith and I love some of his stuff (check out his My Mother's Hymn Book to get on my wavelength), but he doesn't touch me like The Hag. Something about vulnerability wrapped up in a tough exterior, combined with jazz-inflected phrasing and great taste in songs makes me take him to heart. 

But it wasn't always that way. I used to say "I like all kinds of music, except country and opera." Eventually, opera seduced me but country was still off limits. My college roommate just reminded me that he turned me onto Hag in junior year but I think that only lasted until I graduated. It was actually photographer Mark Seliger who turned the tide, when he handed me a cassette with Big City, Merle Haggard's 1981 album, with Dwight Yoakam's 1986 classic Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. on Side B.

I fell for the title track of Big City right away, digging the witty lyrics and the tasty update on Western Swing, and soon found myself playing the album regularly. So you can thank Seliger for expanding my horizons - and you can also blame him for the fact that the 80's is my favorite period for the Hag. All Music Guide, I laugh at your 2.5 stars for Out Among The Stars! Any album with Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa on it is an instant classic, and this one also has My Life's Been Grand and Bleachers. The decade also included such gems as Back To The Barrooms, Kern River and Chill Factor, which in addition to the classic title track also contains Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, a song I sang to my daughter for years. 

Sure some of the production gets a little glossy but that contrasts nicely with his increasingly weathered voice and he always makes sure to keep a band feel and shoehorn in a tidy solo on sax, piano or guitar. Like many cultural phenomena, Hag's 80's actually began at the end of the previous decade, on 1979's Serving 190 Proof, which opens with Footlights, surely one of the greatest "it's tough to be famous" songs ever. Check out the astonishing use of the word "nearly" in this killer verse:

I throw my old guitar across the stage and
Then my bassman takes the ball
And the crowd goes nearly wild to see
My guitar nearly fall

Sigh. Sheer brilliance. It was probably jealousy that led Bob Dylan to make those remarks last year. I love Dylan like life itself but he wishes he could nearly have written Footlights. I had the pleasure of seeing the Hag at Tramps in the mid-90's and when he opened with Footlights I knew we were in for a good night. I was there with Hag superfan Robert Marlowe* who had helped me get further into his music. 

Rob confirmed that this was a special show. Part of it was the setlist and the fact that Hag had a full band, including a guy who just played rhythm on an acoustic guitar, which matters so much for texture. Hag also took a lot of left-field guitar solos that always ended up in the just the right place. Just another unexpected thing about a guy I never expected to like.

And now he's gone, another towering musical figure swallowed up by 2016. Remember him tonight with some of my favorite songs and tell me yours.

*The world still awaits Rob's book on Bonnie Owens, who was married to both Haggard and Buck Owens. 

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Skylark's Liminal Journey

The world of contemporary classical music, like all music, is full of niches. But it may not get more niche than an album of recent choral music around the theme of "the dream state at the end of life." But that is indeed what the vocal ensemble Skylark has delivered with Crossing Over, their new release on Sono Luminus. Having recently watched a great friend succumb to pancreatic cancer, I was actually completely uninterested, even resistant, to listening to anything that purported to describe what he had gone through. I also wasn't sure that anything other than tuneless primal screaming could express how I felt about the situation. 

But listen I did and found that I had been taking Skylark's concept a bit too literally. Crossing Over is, in fact, a superbly sung and brilliantly sequenced album that makes you think about death about as much as listening to Mozart's Requiem makes you think about death. It's in there, for sure, but despite the booklet's heavy handed subtitles (Denial, My time has come, etc.) there need be no utility to the collection. Overall, it is a meditative and elevating listening experience, with the rich, warm recording seeming to surround you with the perfectly balanced voices of the ensemble.

The composers chosen by Skylark's leader Matthew Guard range from those firmly established in the 20th century canon, like John Tavener and William Schuman, to younger musicians like Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daniel Elder. It's Elder's Elegy that opens the album with a beautiful evocation of Taps emerging from a cloud of voices. By Elder's hand the overly familiar melody is imbued with a new gravity that may surprise you. 

Tavener is of course the composer Paul McCartney picked to lend a little weight to the releases on The Beatles' Apple Label, which put out his The Whale in 1970. Featured here is Butterfly Dreams from 2003, a short eight-part piece that explores a variety of moods, even touching on the primal scream in No. 6. The Butterfly: My Most Horrifying Nightmare. This is a small but important part of Tavener's legacy and we owe a debt of gratitude to Skylark for this definitive rendering of a rarely performed piece. 

Heyr bú oss himnum á, Thorvaldsdottir's setting of an Icelandic psalm with the key line "We cannot make a joyful song unless we are moved by love," is somber but shot through with shafts of light. I wasn't looking for further proof of her versatility but I'm glad to have it nonetheless. The longest work on Crossing Over is the world-premiere recording of Robert Vuichard's Heliocentric Meditation, which uses text from John Donne's Meditation XVII ("ask not for whom the bell tolls..."). It has some of Donne's solidity to it's structure and covers a variety of emotions from sorrow to raging against the dying of the light. It may never be performed by a glee club, as have some of Vuichard's other compositions, but it is a valuable addition to the contemporary choral catalog, which goes for the album as a whole.

Don't be scared off by the concept - give Crossing Over a chance. If you love the sound of the human voice you will find it a deeply rewarding journey.

Another recent release from Sono Luminus is not quite so satisfying. Everyone knows that a joke that must be explained is not a joke at all and there is a lot of explaining going on in the liner notes to Serious Business by the Spektral Quartet. The idea is to "look at humor" from different musical angles but the results are not always something you want to hear more than once. Many, Many Cadences by Sky Macklay opens the album and drives its point home with a repetition that seems unnecessary rather than clever. David Remnick's The Ancestral Mousetrap has the virtuoso instrumentalists singing in addition to playing, which might amuse in concert but not in my living room.

Hack by Chris Fisher-Lochhead closes the album with many, many (22) short "transcriptions" of comedians, from Lenny Bruce to Tig Notaro. It may be that you had to be there but these just seem like unfocused fragments. There's nothing terribly wrong with it, musically speaking, but there's not enough to engage me either. 

However, there is one saving grace on Serious Business, and that is the Spektral's absolutely masterful performance of Haydn's String Quartet Opus 33, No. 2 in E-flat major, "The Joke." I'm usually the one saying "Do we really need another recording of this?" when it comes to pieces from the classical era but in this case the answer is resounding YES. The recording is pure perfection and the quartet never oversells Haydn's melodies, with playing that reflects the elegance of the period so exactly that listening feels like time travel. The famous tease of the multiple endings still kills, too. Humor that stands the test of 200-plus years? Now, that's serious business.