Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dylan-Lamar-Misty: An American Trilogy

There's already been enough ink spilled - both pro and con - about the three albums discussed below for even a casual observer to recognize that they are among the most notable of the year. So, rather than review them all in a conventional fashion, I thought it might be more interesting to go a bit more meta in my analysis. 

PAST: Bob Dylan - Triplicate When last we met Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize-winning songwriter, he was inhabiting the role of the night watchman on the Titanic and singing bloody tales on the brave and beautiful Tempest, his last album of originals. In the five years since, he has embarked on a quixotic and intermittently rewarding journey through the heart of Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. When Shadows In The Night, the first of these albums, came out in 2015, Dylan gave interviews where he talked about how these were "uncover" versions, which he hoped would reveal the bones of these great songs free of obfuscating ornamentation. Even so, part of me wondered if "Dylan sings Sinatra" was to the side of his overall project, a diversion. 

But I also remembered Dylan writing in Chronicles: Volume One about how he had studied Brecht-Weill's Pirate Jenny, breaking it down and examining its mechanics in great detail as a way to progress in his own songwriting. So maybe Shadows and its follow up, Fallen Angels, were part of the same process, like when he presaged the purple patch that started with Time Out Of Mind with two albums of folk and blues covers (both remarkable albums, and ripe for rediscovery). This seemed to jibe with rumors I heard of new songs being recorded, including a duet with Mavis Staples they put together when they were on the road together

But then Triplicate dropped, 30 new cover songs, arranged in thematic groups only Dylan really understood. Like the other albums, it is a beautifully recorded and performed mixed bag, with the uptempo, horn-driven tunes the most effective to these ears. The packaging of the deluxe edition resembles the "record albums" I found in my grandmother's collection (and that Dylan likely grew up with), making an even more explicit nod to the past. 

Then it hit me: his Bobness isn't studying up for new songs (although those may be coming), he is immersing himself in yesteryear. Why? Because he saw it all coming. When Tempest came out, some people were baffled by the sanguinary escapades described in many of the songs, whether in the exploits of the Early Roman Kings, the residents of Scarlet Town, or the "brother killing brother" on the Titanic in the title track. What was all that bloodletting about? It only took five years for the other shoe to drop: "American carnage." Remember, Dylan was on the fiery front lines of the Civil Rights movement, he saw hatred directed at him - probably even getting called a "n****r lover" - he knew the reaction to the Obama presidency was going to be harsh. He tried to tell us on Tempest: there will be blood. This is America, born in British blood, baptized in Southern blood, confirmed in black blood...there gets to be a need for another vein to open. 

After I had lived with Triplicate for a week or so, all this hit me like a ton of bricks: Get. The. Message. I mean, could it get any more obvious? He tried to warn us, and now that his prediction is splashed across the headlines and our Twitter feeds - with the metaphorical blood of the "forgotten Americans" being drained by White House policies on a daily basis, and the literal blood of black men on the streets - he's out. And I'll be goddamned if he hasn't earned every right to be another septuagenarian finding comfort in the songs of old. But he's not time traveling because he wants to return to the past, rather he perhaps seeks to reintroduce us to the humane values from which Tin Pan Alley often took its lifeblood. The liner notes by Tom Piazza touch on this: "The angle of light is mostly autumnal; the songs address longing for something gone, or just out of reach, a past that can't be retrieved."

As Dylan sings in Why Was I Born, the Jerome Kern song that concludes Triplicate:

Why was I born
Why am I livin'
What do I get
What am I givin'

That these questions still matter to Dylan, and I don't think he does anything lightly, is deeply moving. Do they matter to you?

PRESENT: Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. "What happens on earth, stays on earth," is one refrain that pops up repeatedly on the follow-up to the staggering triumph of To Pimp A Butterfly. That's a literally grounded statement, as is the moment in BLOOD,  the introductory skit, when Lamar gets shot by a blind woman who likely represents American justice, just America, or both. The album that follows finds Lamar wrestling with our present moment in kaleidoscopic detail, constantly questioning how he and we got HERE and wondering what the next step is. 

While each song stands on its own, there is also a loose concept that is made clearer by the end when the album swallows its own tail with what may be the whole album run backwards at increasing speed, ending the album where it began: "So, I was taking a walk one day..." There are also a number of theories about listening to DAMN. in reverse order, traveling from Kendrick's origins in DUCKWORTH., the last song, to his death in BLOOD. Like the continuing "conversation" around police shootings and general issues of imbalance of power, the album is a circular argument.

Lamar's inability to reconcile his own individual talent and achievement with the perpetual underdog status of his race is not a failure but an acknowledgment of a recalcitrant issue that may be the central obstacle to this country living up to its potential. Naming the problem, so they say, is always the first step toward solving it and maybe "new Kung Fu Kenny" (a new nickname for Lamar, based on a Don Cheadle character, that appears several times) will be the one to break us out of the patterns that are holding back progress. 

But FEAR. is the landmark track on the album, its middle section describing in chilling detail over a dozen ways he could have died as a teenager in Compton, a personal truth for Lamar that is far too easy to tie into headlines from across the country. Can we get past this moment, shake loose of the prejudice and hatred, without blowing everything up along the way? 

FUTURE: Father John Misty - Pure Comedy Although it's couched in an enhanced and very modern take on Laurel Canyon almost-soft-rock, Pure Comedy may be the most futuristic album of the year so far. In song after song, in the grand tradition of speculative fiction, FJM takes human foibles to their natural conclusion, imagining a world where global warming has destroyed civilization, virtual reality has sapped the will to live, or the political divide has made it almost impossible to share the planet. 

One example is Things It Would Have Been Good To Know before The Revolution, which comes off as a sequel to the Talking Heads' Life During Wartime. After the high-tension thrills David Byrne so vividly describes, what comes next? Society rebuilt on its ashes, where we are no longer at the top of the food chain and the idea of "eating on the run" takes on new meaning. Twenty Years From Now is also an explicit peek into a crystal ball, and only slightly clouded by jaundice. 

Even in the most personal song on the record, the epic Leaving L.A., FJM can't help envisioning Los Angeles after "the big one," or relate how he's "beginning to begin to see the end," of his own career, with the aura of impending doom goosed by Gavin Bryars' spine-tingling string arrangement. The involvement of this 80-year-old legend of 20th century classical music, best known for his piece memorializing the sinking of the Titanic, was a catalyst to connecting Pure Comedy to Dylan's Tempest. Also, the sheer volume of words FJM spills on some of these essays in song is probably only equaled by the Bard of Hibbing himself - or a great rapper like Kendrick Lamar. 

While his need to convey so many ideas occasionally finds FJM shoehorning words into the bar line of a song, stretching a rhyme scheme to the breaking point, or reaching for an easy pun, these shortcomings are more than balanced out by quotable lines in every track. One great example is on When The God Of Love Returns There Will Be Hell To Pay, where he goes back to the Bible to get old-school apocalyptic and turns one of the Four Horsemen's steeds into a mordant observer of current affairs: "And the pale horse looks a little sick/Says, "Jesus, you didn't leave a whole lot for me/If this isn't hell already then tell me what the hell is?"

Despite the bleak, sarcastic, even bitter observations of Pure Comedy, FJM's viewpoint isn't completely fatalistic. His optimism can be located somewhere between the twin poles of The Beatles'  "Love is all you need," and Randy Newman's Political Science, offering a few variations on the theme of "each other's all we got," first stating it the title track, or "It's a miracle to be alive," which comes in the last song. 

Lamar's view is also not universally dark. He finds time to tweak other rappers, ("sit down, be humble"), and indulge in some LUST., in a Princely falsetto yet, and even LOVE. in the pretty, Frank Ocean-influenced collaboration with R&B up-and-comer Zacari. Even if the sentiments in these two songs are complex and nuanced, the lush sonic backdrops are a respite in their own right. In the end, the hope in DAMN. stems from the sheer humanity baked into every track, which is impossible to imagine even the most stone-cold racist ignoring. "Ain't nobody praying for me," Lamar claims several times, but I would like to think he's wrong. Our future may depend on it.

As for Dylan, wandering the labyrinth of the past, I found the glow at the end of the tunnel to reside in second of two photographs by John Shearer included in the collection. The first is a Hollywood-style portrait that, even with the heavy use of chiaroscuro, can't help but reveal the thousand shocks that Dylan's face has been heir to after 75 years of living. But the second shows him dressed with casual swagger and leaning against a vintage convertible, which contains a gorgeous, provocatively dressed young woman. You could read many meanings into this picture, even something unsavory. She's young enough to be his daughter, for one thing - maybe she is his daughter, we have no idea. But you could also see it as a picture of a guy who still has plenty to live for. 

As long as the Never Ending Tour continues and our most recognized prophet is still on the road looking for another joint, I think we're going to be OK.

P.S. Keep an eye out for Best of 2017 (So Far) to see where these albums fall - or don't - on my list of favorites.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Levitating With Car Seat Headrest

Although Teens Of Denial, Car Seat Headrest's triumphant 2016 album, is laced with keyboards and the surprising blast of a horn section, leader Will Toledo definitely subscribes to Lou Reed's dictum: "You can't beat two guitars, bass, and drums." And, except for occasional hypnotic loops, that's what he delivered in stunning style to a packed house at Webster Hall last Friday night (and into Saturday morning - it was part of the Governor's Ball After Dark series). 

For a bit of verité reaction, here's the hyped review I dashed off on Bandsintown after the concert:

"Fantastic show! The band's connection to the audience was something to behold. Webster Hall practically levitated with the energy. Will Toledo is a true master of song, singing, guitar, and the stage - and his band was more than up to the task of supporting him. Practically every song was a highlight but Unforgiving Girl and Fill In The Blank were extra special. Also notable was the epic ballad-like approach to Bowie's Teenage Wildlife. I would see them again in a heartbeat!"

I also posted this video, just a hint of the energy in the room, which had the ballroom's sprung floor bouncing:

One thing Father Lou did not mention in his recipe for success was lyrics, which were obviously a huge aspect of his art. So it was for Buddy Holly, the original avatar of "two guitars, bass, and drums," and so it is for Toledo. He's brilliant at turning self-doubt and bad behavior into empathetic anthems ("Drugs are better, drugs are better with friends are better, friends are better, friends are better with drugs are better..." or "We are not a proud race, it's not a race at all, We're just trying, I'm only trying to get home: Drunk Drivers!" or "I didn't want you to hear that shake in my voice/my pain is my own.") and the audience knew every word. The last time I heard this much audience participation was at the Kanye West show and in both cases it was an amazing thing to experience. This is one reason we go to concerts in the first place, for the thrill of being among the subset of "our people" that includes fans of the act on stage.

Nap Eyes, the opening band, commanded only a sub-subset of the people in the room, the chatter sometimes threatening to drown out the more delicate moments. But their quietly determined indie - somewhere between Mutual Benefit and Velvet Underground 3rd - won them some new fans, who crowded around them at the merch table after the show. While it wasn't the ideal setting, I was glad for the chance to see them, having really enjoyed their last album Thought Rock Fish Scale, which includes the modern classic, Stargazer

I've been trying to get to a CSH show for about two years, ever since Toledo poked his head above the Bandcamp morass, but they always sold out in minutes. Now I know why - and thank goodness for the credit card pre-sale! I won't belabor the point further: See this band

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)
Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.
The Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1
Best Of 2016: The Top 20