Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Of 2017: Classical

The word “classical” is just shorthand for the vast array of (mostly) composed music that stems from that tradition, a mere iceberg’s tip of which I was able to cover throughout the year. If you missed those posts, I list them and the albums they included below (aside from those I included in The Top 25), all of which are among the best of the year. Following that is a brief look at some other incredible recordings bequeathed to us in 2017.

Piano Players
Leif Ove Andsnes: Sibelius The Swedish giant is mostly associated with the epic sweep of his symphonies, tone poems, and THAT violin concerto. Leave it to Andsnes to dig deep and find a wealth of solo piano music to further round out our picture of the composer. And if you’re expecting sketchy juvenalia, take note of the fact that these pieces span Sibelius’s whole career, from the cheery Opus 5 Impromptus to the Funf Skizzen (OK, it means "five sketches") of Opus 114, which find him elaborating on folk-like melodies with sophisticated sparkle. As you would expect, Andsnes plays everything with total command and a well-modulated warmth in a sonically perfect recording. The year’s essential Sibelius album. 
Rafal Blechacz - Johann Sebastian Bach If you want to wind me up, get me talking about the endless recordings of canonical works, many of which already have several brilliant interpretations from which to choose. Then someone like Blechacz comes along, on Deutsche Gramophon no less (yellow banner and all), playing such a well-conceived program of Bach and playing it so goddamned beautifully that my walls come tumbling down. Even if you have an aversion to Bach on modern piano, I urge you to check Blechacz out in the Italian Concerto, Partitas 1 and 3, and the shorter works here. There is command of tempo and timbre, as you would expect, but also spontaneity, warmth, and even joy, all of which make the music feel new. Blechacz is not as young as he looks, so I wondered why I had been unaware of him, even though he has won multiple competitions and was only the second Polish pianist in history to get an exclusive contract with DG. It comes down to repertoire, as he made his name in Chopin, which is never going to get my attention. This record is so astonishing, however, that I might just give Chopin another try.

Hauschka - What If Instead of turning his elaborately prepared piano toward Cage-ian abstraction, Volker Bertelmann, who performs as Hauschka, constructs propulsive little art-pop miniatures filled with all kinds of spine-tingling flourishes and emotional echoes. What If finds him developing his techniques further and also improving the recording of his handmade sonics to an almost three-dimensional degree, making for perhaps his most consistent album yet. I've heard other prepared pianists and they all try to be Hauschka - just stick with the original!

Sarah Cahill - Eighty Trips Around The Sun: Music By And For Terry Riley As the title hints, Cahill conceived this four-disc set as an 80th birthday tribute to Riley and it is a gift indeed. Featuring the first commercial recordings of his puckish early opus, Two Pieces, along with world premieres of pieces by his son Gyan Riley and a raft of other luminaries including Pauline Oliveros and Evan Ziporyn, this is a fully stocked treasure trove of keyboard goodness. Cahill is the ideal person to have put this together as she not only has the technique and concentration to show off the music at its best, but her working relationship with Riley spans more than a decade of commissions and performances. In short, she gets him, and is a persuasive and passionate advocate for his music and the way it has influenced composers for decades. Oliveros is definitely one of those and it is her A Trilling Piece For Terry that closes out the set, taking up all of disc four. This improvisational work is here performed as a duet with Samuel Adams, and every part of the piano is coaxed into participating resulting in a thrilling traversal of possibilities that you will want to experience more than once. There's over three hours of listening on Cahill's magnum opus, and a host of moods, so I recommend taking your time with the whole collection, which should prove definitive.

Choral Creations

The Crossing and International Contemporary Ensemble - Seven Responses This massive undertaking finds one of our finest vocal ensembles commissioning seven new works in "response" to the same number of cantatas in Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri, a 17th century monolith of religious music. But you don't need to be a believer to fall for these works by Caroline Shaw, David T. Little, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Hans Thomalla, Santa Ratniece, Lewis Spratlan and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. It was the latter that caught my eye when the album came out, recalling her marvelous work for Skylark's Crossing Over, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her contribution is the 10-minute Ad Genua, where fragmented strings seem to stake out a moonlit clearing for the voices to occupy in almost ghostly fashion. There's a hint of Ligeti here, as there is elsewhere on Seven Responses, and fantastic solo singing by Maren Montalbano-Brehm, a mezzo who is one of The Crossing's secret weapons.

Donald Nally, the conductor, is also a critical factor, keeping perfect balance between the voices and the complex soundscapes of the music played expertly by ICE. While the overall mood is one of nuanced contemplation, Little's dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet, is a shock to the system with bold, dramatic gestures straight out of the Trent Reznor playbook. But that variety is key to keeping us involved as the the scale of the thing, at nearly two hours, is demanding. Stay the course, however, and you'll find the rewards are many. The Crossing's album of John Luther Adams' Canticles Of The Holy Wind is also a fascinating listen and I'm looking forward to catching up with their other 2017 releases, featuring music by Ted Hearne and Edie Hill.

Trondheim Vokalensemble and Symphony Orchestra - Ståle Kleiberg: Mass For Modern Man Grammy-nominated classical music is a mixed bag if ever there was one, but I have found it a good source to catch up on things I missed. If you want to go spelunking yourself, check out this playlist which includes nearly all of it. That's how I came across this somewhat conservative but emotionally engaging work, which strives to cover the issues of "modern man" with movements revolving around refugees, bereavement after losing a child, and even loss of faith. While the lyrics in English translation are admittedly clunky, the work succeeds on sheer feel thanks to the convincing performance by the Trondheim singers and players. Give a listen and then watch the Grammys to see if LL Cool J will have to learn how to pronounce "Trondheim Vokalensemble."

Chamber Explorations

Cadillac Moon Ensemble - Conrad Winslow: The Perfect Nothing Catalog The inspiration for the title piece on this wonderful collection of Winslow's compositions is Frank Traynor's store/gallery/art installation of the same name and there is almost the sense of moving through various rooms of random stuff as you listen to the seven movements. Footsteps, boxes falling, distorted electronics and little tunes crop up, each shift in texture, tone, melody and rhythm leading you through the cabinet of curiosities cooked up by Winslow and his collaborators, which includes producer Aaron Roche, himself a guitarist and songwriter. Roche also plays on the final work, Benediction, a quirky and atmospheric miniature for guitar and piano, demonstrating a sure hand in a technically demanding piece. Ellipsis is the other short work on the album and was composed for vibraphone and "electronics resonance" - but I also hear voices, and I don't think they're in my head! Abiding Shapes features all of Cadillac Moon, a unique ensemble of flute, violin, cello and percussion, and has Winslow composing using sawtooth, sine, and square waves, which are usually associated with electronic instruments. Somehow it comes together very musically, with even a hint of forms from the "old weird America" of folk music. Both Winslow and Cadillac Moon were new to me but this extraordinary album has put them solidly among my favorites of those making music that seems truly new and of our time.

American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Thrive on Routine 
I may be in the minority here - or maybe I'm just a Stan for John Luther Adams - but the distance in how captivated I am by In A Treeless Place Only Snow, his contribution to this superbly performed and recorded collection, and the other works has only grown since it was released. But listen for yourself and trust ACME's instincts before mine before making up your own mind.

Molly Joyce - Lean Back And Release This EP got a lot of people excited earlier this year and rightly so. Joyce shows a versatile and confident touch on these two pieces for solo violin and prerecorded electronics, each one developing from minimal material into something deep and involving. The performances by Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino are highly persuasive and I suspect we will be hearing much more from Molly Joyce in the future.

Jasper String Quartet - Unbound This excellent quartet has long played newer music alongside canonical works but on Unbound they jump into the 21st Century feet first and perform seven pieces by living composers. I think they found the water to their liking as these are fantastic performances of well-curated works by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Judd Greenstein, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy, and Ted Hearne. The Sono Luminus recording is - as usual - perfect, with a close but not clinical acoustic that puts you in the center of the music, which is alternately spacey, fun, folksy and severe. Unbound easily takes its place as one of 2017's essential string quartet releases, alongside Brooklyn Rider's terrific Spontaneous Symbols and the Del Sol String Quartet's instant classic, Dark Queen Mantra.

Orchestra For One

Australian Chamber Orchestra - Jonny Greenwood: Water "And I should raise in the east/A glass of water/Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly" - that's the final couplet of Philip Larkin's poem, Water, which is where Greenwood, also the lead guitarist in Radiohead, gained inspiration for this sparkling piece. Alternately lush and jagged across its nearly 16-minute span, Water has a narrative thrust, which is unsurprising when you consider all of Greenwood's stellar work for Paul Thomas Anderson movies such as The Master and Inherent Vice. The piece also shows Greenwood developing as an orchestrator and he makes good use of the texture and power of the ACO's strings. I do have to complain - loudly - about the orchestra's decision to pair the piece with the umpteenth recording of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, which even he was probably sick of as the ink dried on the manuscript. Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes, which is not underrepresented by any means, would have made a more apropos companion. And Greenwood's beautiful work is priced at "album only" if you want to buy it on MP3 - argh. Stream Water, though, and if you become a fan of Greenwood's work you can join me in eagerly awaiting the soundtrack to Anderson's Phantom Thread, which will have more of his polished and intriguing music.

Holiday Hangover

I saw Easter candy in a store the other day, but that doesn't mean you have to stop listening to seasonal tunes. Christmas comes every year, in any case, and we're always looking for something new to play amidst the Bing Crosby classics. When guests pile into your house for Wassail and you're needing something whimsical that might satisfy everyone, try Imagine Christmas, in which artists from the Sono Luminus family put their own spin in familiar tunes, my favorite being ACME's (yes) imaginative take on Silent Night, a most unexpected delight. For the quiet moments before bed on Christmas Eve, there's nothing better than Winter's Night by the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, a truly glorious album of sublime choral music based around Hugo Distler's seven variations of the hymn Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen. This is one you can play any time of year, especially when you find yourself exclaiming "Serenity now!"

Listen to tracks from all of the albums below and if you're still seeking more new sounds, catch up with dozens of albums in the 2017 Archive (Classical) playlist. Whatever happens next year, you can keep track of what catches my ear in Of Note In 2018 (Classical).

Coming soon: More Best Of 2017 featuring: Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae, Electronic, and Rock, Folk, etc.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA
Best Of 2016: Classical

Monday, December 25, 2017

Best Of 2017: The Top 25

I probably say a variation of this every year, but my Top 25 records are not the only “bests” of the year - you’ll find plenty more on the genre-specific lists that follow over the coming weeks - but these are the ones that got me THROUGH or enhanced my days, becoming the soundtrack of my life. If you’ve been following along, you’ll notice that I expanded my list to 25 from 20 this year (it used to be 10!). This is due both to the nearly overwhelming amount of great music that came out this year and to the need to more accurately reflect the breadth of my listening. Who knows what next year will bring?

1. The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles In the absence of actual miracles, this surprising return to form made for a delightful substitute.

2. The Courtneys - II That there is profundity in extreme minimalism was never clearer than on this sleek sophomore album. There was also no better road-trip record, which I needed for year two of college tours. 

3. Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up In ancient times, poetry and music were deeply integrated disciplines. Robin Pecknold, the singer, songwriter, and heart of Fleet Foxes, is that kind of musician and poet and words and sounds are intertwined on this third album to an even further degree than on their first two. Considering that Crack-Up was made after an hiatus of several years, during which time Pecknold attended Columbia University, it’s not surprising that it is also their most literary album. The lyrics are deeply allusive (even the title is a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald) but still manage to come from a very personal place. Third Of May/Odaigahara, the first single, is a perfect example, with Pecknold’s fear and sadness over strains in his friendship with bandmate Skyler Sjelset transmuted into something elevated and universal. 

“Can I be light and free?/If I lead you through the fury will you call to me?/And is all that I might owe you carved on ivory?” Pecknold sings over soaring stings and guitars, after a hushed moment of introspection that uses a different sound to represent an older perspective on the white-hot emotions surrounding a breach in the relationship. In his wonderful annotations of the lyrics on Genius he translates that last line as “Are our obligations to one another as outmoded and in-the-past as fuckin' scrimshaw bro,” which gives an idea of the alchemy of his writing.

The slash in the title of the song was also a hint of its suite-like structure, which is something they employ on several songs, stretching their compositional muscles towards realms of prog-folk or even art song, making for a richly involving listen that retains its mystery over time. It also makes the shorter, more direct songs like If You Need To, Keep Time On Me even more stunning, as they stand out from the thickets of changes in tempo and timbre. 

If I was going to find any nits to pick with Pecknold & co., it might be to question the choice of including a brief sample of a Mulatu Astatke track at the end of On Any Other Ocean (January- June) which just doesn’t fit and wrenches you out of the enveloping world of Crack-Up. On the double-vinyl version, it hangs off the end of side three quite awkwardly. I won’t belabor the point as it is such a short excerpt, but they should feel no need to establish hipster-cred by telling us they’re fans of Ethiopian jazz - that’s what Spotify playlists are for! I could also wonder why they muted some of their power, which can be explosive in concert, leading to a less dynamic experience than what might have been. I was lucky enough to see them twice this year (once in the tiny confines of Electric Lady Studios) and feel that massed blast in person. Aside from those minor quibbles, this was a glorious return. Long may they reign. 
4. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. No one in hip hop - or anywhere else, for that matter - limns our present moment the way he does. Shame about that album cover, though!
5. Father John Misty - Pure Comedy The good father and production partner Jonathan Wilson turn in their most ambitious epic yet on this deceptively futuristic masterpiece. 
6. Nordic Affect - Raindamage Perhaps Björk wouldn’t find herself in such a cul de sac if she went home and worked with these Icelandic geniuses of texture, precision and thorny wildness. But guess what? They’re doing more than fine on their own. 

7. Goldfrapp - Silver Eye Call it a back to basics album if you like, but there’s nothing basic about their addictive glam-electro beats and dubbed out ambient tone poems - and no one does it better

8. Sampha - Process  Long a secret weapon for many hip hop and R&B stars, this quadruple-threat (singer, songwriter, musician and producer) finally steps out on his own, delivering a stunningly versatile collection of songs that show off a uniquely muscular vulnerability. 
9. Jenny O. - Peace And Information A songwriter in the classic mode, Jenny’s sophomore album was as immediate as a status update and as solid as the vintage Detroit steel she likes to drive. Producer Jonathan Wilson helped her push into new territory, with an extra edge here or a Latin groove there, and her singing was better than ever. 

10. Noveller - A Pink Sunset For No One Sarah Lipstate does things with multiple layers of electric guitars that Les Paul never would’ve imagined. On her latest album she also buckled down on song structure, building tension and dynamics into every track. She’s been doing this for a long time and this is a perfect entry point into her magical world. 
11. Del Sol String Quartet - Terry Riley: Dark Queen Mantra The title piece, written by Riley for string quartet and his son Gyan’s guitar, is a new highlight in the already consequential career of a true American original. The accompanying works do nothing to break the spell. 

12. Nev Cottee - Broken Flowers Every note counts on this epic of badass enervation (trust me) led by Cottee’s sepulchral croon. It’s an enveloping record, like a warm but slightly scratchy blanket, and inspiring in Cottee’s commitment to his singular vision of starlit folk-rock. 

13. Boogarins - Desvio Onirico (Live 2016) and Lá Vem A Morte These boys from Brazil have been deepening their sound both on stage and in the studio and both sides are represented in their 2017 releases. The live album features four exploratory cuts, three from their first two albums and one improvised on the spot - it’s a trip and a half as they refuse to play it safe in front of ecstatic crowds. Lá Vem is a psychedelic tapestry, with songs blending into instrumental fragments and back again, a journey of quite a different nature than the live jams, but a journey nonetheless. 

14. Elsa Hewitt - Cameras From Mars This is really a stand-in for all three excellent albums Hewitt released this year, spanning electro-pop, ambient and collage-like sounds. While she’s new on the electronic scene, she has been honing her craft as a songwriter and producer for nearly a decade. Give it a try and if you like what you hear, support her Pledge campaign to get downloads, vinyl and cassettes of her handcrafted sonics. Maybe if we show her enough love from the States, she'll travel from England to play in New York!

15. Nadia Reid - Preservation This New Zealand singer-songwriter might as well have called her gorgeous sophomore effort “Self-Preservation,” as she navigates life after a breakup with a spine steeled by nothing but her gift for indelible melodies and lyrics full of poetic leaps. The production is well-nigh perfect, pushing her folky songs into the indie-rock mystic. But it’s her songs and remarkable voice which are the stars here, as she proved at the start of her NYC debut show at Park Church Co-Op earlier this month. The way she walked up on stage without a word and, accompanied only by her guitar, just poured out her voice flawlessly was jaw-dropping. A house of worship instantly became an entirely appropriate place for her to work her magic. Preservation is a treasure you need in your collection.

16. Spoon - Hot Thoughts America’s longest living rock band continues to find ways to add new twists while still sounding utterly like themselves. While Britt Daniel’s gritty voice and gnarled guitar are at the forefront, everybody pulls their weight, especially beat-master Jim Eno who always makes sure the rhythms are up to the minute and intensely satisfying. 
17. Nicole Atkins - Goodnight Rhonda Lee In which the tough dame from south Jersey masters all types of American classicism, from soul to country and even disco. 

18. Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble - Return Greatness ensued when homecoming kings Adam Cuthbert, Matthew Finch and Daniel Rhode composed pieces for the avant-garde experts at their alma mater then brought the recordings back to the lab for this immersive collection of post-ambient, post-minimalist chamber music. 
19. Novella - Change Of State According to Spotify, the genre I listened to the most in 2017 was “Chamber Psych” and this elegant ensemble may be mostly responsible for that. Like The Courtneys, Novella tightened up their songwriting, focused their arrangements, and came up with an end-to-end classic

20. Michael Chapman - 50 This Brit-folk legend celebrated a half-century in music (and his 75th birthday) by heading into the studio with a posse of young American folk-rock virtuosos led by Steve Gunn and laying down new songs and remakes, resulting in a woody tapestry of hard-luck ballads and tall tales that was consistently gripping. His voice may be a dry husk of its former self but, boy, does he know how to sing. 

21. Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow While this might be a lighter-weight entry in M.C. Taylor’s catalog, goddamn if his richly textured Americana didn’t just feel good. And no record released this year was more appropriate for a midnight drive through Pennsylvania’s Allegheny tunnels - just one of the ways he kept me steady at the wheel. Hallelujah!

22. This Is The Kit - Moonshine Freeze Nearly a decade in, Kate Stables (who is TITK, along with whoever else she brings in) finally connects songs, sounds and singing in a way that goes beyond the merely interesting and becomes essential. So many songs on the album have the incantatory power of ancient tunes that it wouldn’t surprise me if she had found them buried in the woods near King Arthur’s grave. But it’s really all her, as she comes into her own with newfound confidence and mastery. You can practically see it happen in her wonderful Tiny Desk Concert and I hope to see it in person when she hits Rough Trade NYC on May 23rd, 2018

23. Warhaus - Warhaus For his second album as Warhaus, burgeoning Belgian icon Maarten Devoldere smooths our his approach slightly but the choruses are as catchy as ever, the sound world is still a unique blend of cabaret sleaze, noir jazz and Dylanesque snarl and the tang of unfiltered Gauloises hangs in the air. In short, atmospheric.

24. Novelty Daughter - Inertia There’s nothing inert about Faith Harding’s dense beats and next-level electronics, especially when her glorious voice takes off over the top. While her musical approach is elevated and complex, her lyrics are full of plain truths and relatable issues. Making music helps her deal - listening to Novelty Daughter does the same for me. 

25. Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Adiós Señor Pussycat The guitars jangle, the melodies are classic, and the sense of opportunity seized is palpable throughout this roaring comeback from one of England’s best kept secrets. No one saw this coming - even him, maybe - and it’s pure heartfelt sing-along joy. 

Listen to tracks from all of these albums in the playlist below, except for the live album by Boogarins (buy it on Bandcamp for $4.20 - get it?), and then follow through on the sounds that intrigue you. Let me know if I've helped you find something new!

Coming soon: The best of 2017's classical, hip hop, R&B, electronic, rock, folk, etc.!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past

The clattering machinery that delivers new versions of the past, whether via deluxe reissues or previously unreleased material, took a while to get up to speed this year. I was even slightly concerned at mid-year about finding even ten truly great things to properly stock this category. But the aroma of holiday cash has a way of focusing the minds of labels of all sizes, so now that stockings and menorahs are sprouting in every household, it’s clear I needn’t have worried. If you're looking for gift ideas, you’ll find more than enough here to satisfy even the most discerning of your retro-centric family and friends.

Reissue Of The Year

Bob Dylan - Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 (1979-1981) This astoundingly rich deep dive into one of Zimmy’s most controversial periods is one of the highlights of an already extraordinary series, ranking with my favorites, Live 1975 and Tell Tale Signs. When you consider that one of the most celebrated musicians of the century went out on the road with all new, religiously-focused songs it becomes ever clearer that Dylan has always been a true believer - in himself. Another thing that went unmentioned in my verbatim report of its creation is that the Dylan camp’s maximalist approach over the last few sets (Like on last year’s incredible entry, The Cutting Edge, where they included every take of Like A Rolling Stone) makes me wish they would return to the Rolling Thunder Revue and mine more gold from that rich seam. But there’s more than enough here to occupy me until the next set. Ready for the Neverending Nineties?

Lost Masterpieces

Alice Coltrane - World Spirituality Classics Vol 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda This collection of ritual music may never not sound a little strange, with its combination of chanting, percussion, and swooping synths, but it needs to be heard to be believed.

Laraaji - Celestial Vibrations For more uniquely transporting sounds, finding the debut album by Larry Edward Gordon - released on a private press label before the ambient master met Brian Eno - is easy now thanks to wider release by Soul Jazz

Ornette Coleman - Ornette At 12/Crisis It’s a sad commentary on the state of our “all music all the time” ecosystem when it takes 40 years for TWO major albums by one of our most significant musicians to appear in a digital format. And even now that Real Gone Music has engineered the reissue of these records, their licensing deal only permitted a release on CD, which seems to be a sunsetting medium. All I can say is, if you no longer have a way to play shiny silver discs, make friends with someone who can because you need this music. 

Both Ornette At 12 and Crisis are live albums, recorded on opposite coasts seven months apart, but the only difference between them and Coleman’s studio work at the time is that there was an audience involved. The quality of the sound is more than acceptable and, on the four tracks that make up Ornette At 12, even extraordinary. Charlie Haden’s bass never sounded better and Coleman’s alto sax is a warm ribbon of golden melody throughout. Dewey Redman’s tenor is the perfect foil as he is more than willing to pursue the overblown noises and extended techniques so often associated with “free jazz.” Ornette does push that envelope a bit when he sallies in on violin, but it still works, as does his one trumpet solo, which is surprisingly beautiful. 

Crisis features Don Cherry on trumpet (and flute) so Coleman leaves those duties to him. As you might expect from the original cover art, which features a burning Bill Of Rights, these five tracks tend toward the political, in the same way Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun is political: a purely sonic response to the world's chaos. So Space Jungle and Trouble in the East are uncommonly aggressive and cacophonous, almost sounding like a different band on the latter track thanks to the combination of Coleman's violin and Cherry's doubled flutes or recorders. Haden's composition Song For Ché, a hymn-like creation, is also featured in likely its definitive performance.

I can't say enough how important it is to have these crucial albums back in circulation. Hopefully someone will do the same for the latter-day Coleman albums that are still out of print, like Of Human Feelings, his sassy take on pop-jazz from 1982. Also of interest to Ornette fans is the long-awaited release of both his final performance at a star-studded tribute concert in Prospect Park and the music from his memorial concert.

Hermeto Pascoal & Grupo Vice Versa - Viajando Com o Som The subtitle informs us that this album by the man Miles Davis called "the most impressive musician in the world" consists of the "Lost '76 Vice-Versa Studio Sessions." Recorded over two days in a white heat following a concert which combined his usual rhythm section with a trio of young-gun sax players, two of four tracks find O Bruxo (the Sorcerer or Wizard), as he is known, pursuing a more collective improvisational approach than his usual highly composed work. The second of these is Casinha Pequinina, a 26-minute odyssey that shows how powerfully Pascoal had absorbed his experience playing with Davis on the recordings originally released as Live-Evil. The title of album loosely translates as "Traveling with the Sound" and Casinha is indeed a trip and a half, moving from deeply reflective moods to almost comic exuberance. There doesn't seem to be any great explanation as to why the record was never released, except that Pascoal was just moving to fast to prepare it for release. Nothing has changed in that regard, as the 81-year-old legend has put out two new albums this year, one with a big band and one with a smaller group. Start catching up!

Thelonious Monk - Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 In 1959, Monk entered a New York studio to record performances for the soundtrack of Roger Vadim's adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos infidelity classic. Mostly remakes of Monk tunes with his tight ensemble of the time, the music was never used and never released - until now. It's of much more than just historical interest as everyone was in fine form and Monk never really played the same thing twice. The one song I could have used more of was By And By, which is (I think) the only studio recording he made of the classic hymn. A nice present for the 100th birthday of this American master.

More Brazil Classics

There seems to be no end to wonderful old records from Brazil, partially due to the efforts of Far Out Recordings, who are responsible for the Pascoal album. One of their best reissues this year was Piri's Vocês Querem Mate?, a blissful collection of psychdelic tropicalia from 1970. Tenorio Jr.'s Embalo, the sole album this piano genius made as a leader, was also put back into print this year and it is full of delights beyond the ever-popular Nebulosa.

Love Them Live
David Bowie -  Cracked Actor: Live Los Angeles '74 If only all my favorite bootlegs were spiffed up by Tony Visconti. While this will never replace David Live, which I still (perhaps unreasonably) adore, this is another invaluable document of the Diamond Dogs tour. 

The Replacements - For Sale: Live At Maxwell's 1986 The legend about The Replacements is that they delivered shows that were either focused or entertainingly shambolic. The truth is that most shows were a bit of both, which is what we get here in a fantastic multi-track recording of a concert at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ. The band starts off with a furious rendition of Heyday that isn’t even half over before Paul Westerberg starts inserting the word “murder” into the lyrics almost at random, which also happens elsewhere in the show. But such ad libs never stop the train, which only really breaks down once, during a sloppy take of Sweet’s Fox On The Run. Other than that, they execute pretty much every song you would want with passion and headlong excitement, making for an essential addition to the ‘Mats catalog, featuring the original lineup in all its ridiculous and heartfelt glory. Note that if you opt for the vinyl, Rhino does not provide a download card.
The Yardbirds - Yardbirds ‘68 When I was in high school I fell hard for The Yardbirds, fascinated by their trajectory from blues-wailing live act to studio experimentalists who incorporated everything from harpsichord to Gregorian chant as they helped forge “rock” from the embers of “rock & roll.” This passion took commitment to pursue, as all of the records depicted on the back of my brother’s copy of Greatest Hits were out of print. Eventually I acquired them all, but I still needed more. So, when I spotted a copy of Live Yardbirds featuring Jimmy Page on the wall of my favorite shop (Venus on 8th Street, if you must know) for the princely sum of $35, I told them to hold it for me while I scraped up the cash. 

Eventually, I got the disc (which may or not be counterfeit, as I found out later) onto my turntable and got to hear how The Yardbirds story ended on the stage of the Anderson Theater. Or very nearly so, as Epic Reords had seen fit to bury the performance under a blanket of artificial chatter and even clinking glassware. Still it was thrilling to hear a nascent version of Page’s approach to Jake Holmes’s Dazed And Confused - he even whipped out his violin bow - not to mention singer Keith Relf’s clear tenor improvising on I’m A Man in a way that pointed forward to his brief turn in Medieval-flavored Brit-folk band Renaissance. 

Now Page, having run out of Led Zeppelin catalog items to remaster and repackage, has turned his attention to his time in The Yardbirds and worked his magic on the Anderson Theater show, which is something for all fans of the man and the band to celebrate. Besides stripping away the fake audience noises, he has polished up the mix, making everything sound as good as possible and giving his guitar an almost physical presence throughout. While this was undoubtedly a transitional period for all involved, there’s enough here to thrill any lover of both the blues and psych which make up The Yardbirds brand, even of this wasn’t their greatest period. 

I’m also not sure this was necessarily their greatest concert of the era. Page points out in the liner notes that they were doing two sets a night at the Anderson, which slowed their roll a bit, leading to an occasionally perfunctory quality to the performance. As contemporaneous bootlegs from The Shrine in L.A. show, when given a chance to stretch out they were able to get into a lengthy version of Smokestack Lightning, which was a spectacular showcase for Relf’s harp, something he excelled at more than singing, as well as storming versions of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and The Velvet Underground’s I’m Waiting For My Man. 

Also, as much of a gentleman as Page is about the talents of Relf, bass-player Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty, there was no way they could follow him where he needed to go, which was Led Zeppelin. This is also evident on the second disc, Studio Sketches, a brief collection of unfinished recordings they made around the same time as the final concerts. Even with those limitations, there are riches to be heard here, including an early version of Tangerine, so evocative even in rough form, and Spanish Blood, which features diamond-sharp acoustic playing from Page and a pulpy spoken word segment from McCarty that almost makes it sound almost like a song by The Clientele. It should be noted that, as good as everything sounds, Page made some questionable choices by eliminating Relf's vocal on the Tangerine demo and part of McCarty's on Spanish Blood. Complete versions of those songs are on the the now out of print Cumular Limit album. So, Yardbirds '68 is a mixed bag, then, but a very good one. 

They Came From The Nineties

Radiohead - OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2007 Trust me, if I could afford the super-deluxe version of this, it would be proudly displayed next to my Ming vase. Instead, I’ll just enjoy the three unearthed songs on Spotify and hold on to my two-disc version from 2007. 

Helium - Ends With And If this compilation of rarities by Mary Timoney’s band gets more people listening to them again, that would be a very good thing. I would still recommend beginning with debut album The Dirt Of Luck, which has never gone away but was reissued on vinyl this year along with sophomore album The Magic City. However you get their sweet crunch in your life, just do it!

Reggae Roots & Branches

Every year, a small army of reissue labels fills in more reggae history, a seemingly bottomless well of goodness. In case the forest is obscuring the trees, here are a few from 2017 with real staying power. 

The Abyssinians - Satta Dub (Deluxe Expanded Edition) A big helping of classic, rootsy dub made bigger and better with more tracks, including dubs of dubs!
Lloyd Parks - Time A Go Dread Crucial collection from a soulful yet tough singer that deserves more attention. 
Lee Perry - Back On The Controls: The Session Reels Five stunning singles in stunningly remastered sound. Originally released in 2015 as a box set of vinyl 45s, this killer collection is now available to stream and download. Will we ever get enough?

African-American Power
Isaac Hayes - The Spirit Of Memphis (1962-1976) After proving himself, in collaboration with David Porter, to be one of the greatest songwriters of the soul era, Ike branched out into a solo career that was at least as spectacular. Albums like Hot Buttered Soul, To Be Continued, and Black Moses were essentially perfect - and essentially impossible to anthologize due to the length of the tracks. This new four disc set gamely tries to cover all facets of Hayes’s career (until 1976, that is, when he signed with Polydor), starting off with a generous helping of his songwriting and production for the likes of Sam & Dave, moving through his tentative first steps on his own (Sir Isaac & The Do-Dads, anyone?), and then sampling from the solo albums in a fairly effective manner, although with a few too many edits for my taste. 

Most importantly to this longtime listener, however, are the rarer goodies, like the 33-minute uncut version of Do Your Thing from Shaft that shades into Bitches Brew territory, or a live set from from a PUSH event in Chicago that features a performance of His Eye Is On The Sparrow that is staggering in its vulnerability and mastery of the gospel form. In the end, while one could quibble with some of the selections, the mere fact of the existence of The Spirit Of Memphis is a great thing, giving some proper due to the legacy of Isaac Hayes, which is so often reduced to a song or two. Get the spirit!
Various Artists - Soul of a Nation: Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power: Underground Jazz, Street Funk, and the Roots of Rap 1968-79 If you read that long title and assumed that the first cut was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, you would be correct. But I doubt anyone other than a specialist could predict what else Soul Jazz has unearthed and included on this essential compilation. 

Sounds From The Bush, by the Mandingo Griot Society with Don Cherry is one of a few tracks combining notable jazz players with African-influenced sounds, with Horace Tapscott, Joe Henderson also appearing. But most of the names are unfamiliar, such as Sarah Webster Fabio, David McKnight, Oneness Of Juju and Doug Carn. Fabio’s entrant is a funk vamp with some spoken word and a lengthy band introduction, complete with horoscope signs (it’s fabulous) while the Oneness cut, simply called African Rhythms, has the distinct flavor of a PBS special, especially when the narrator says, “These are African rhythms, passed down to us from the ancient spirits. Feel the spirits, a unifying force!” In short, it’s a little kitschy, but only because we’ve come so far in understanding (or at least hearing) music from all parts of the African continent, not due to any lack of sincerity on the part of the musicians. 

There’s a ton a variety here, too, and almost nothing overstays its welcome (Is It Too Late? by Duke Edwards & The Young Ones is a little tedious), with many paths for further investigation promised. For example, Carlos Garnett, the sax player whose Mother Of The Future closes the set, is someone I'm looking forward to listening to more. I’m also sure that Soul Jazz has done a terrific job with the booklet, so I’m looking forward to picking up the physical release and learning more about these fascinating, funky, and in many cases forgotten acts.

Beatles For Sale

Giles Martin's radical remix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, part of a 50th Anniversary deluxe reissue sheds new light on something you may think you have heard enough times. The in-progress bonus tracks, featuring plenty of studio chatter, are pure catnip for Fabs fans. The same can be said of the nifty (if overpriced) box of fan club Christmas singles - except most serious fans have heard them many times. However, if you haven't you really should, and if you insist on doing so legally, here's your chance!

You can hear tracks from most of these here and below. Ornette Coleman and The Yardbirds are on CD or vinyl only and while the Monk is also not on any streaming service, it can be downloaded. Many more reissues are tracked in an archived playlist.

Coming up next: Best of 2017: The Top 20!

You May Also Enjoy:
Record Roundup: Spirits Of The Past
Best Of 2016: Reissues
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Gospel

Father Bob Zimmy doesn’t so much enter the conference room as apparate there, black hoodie drawn Unabomber tight, opaque sunglasses banking the fire of his piercing blue eyes. He sits down at the long, mirror-polished mahogany table, conforming his lanky frame to the Italian leather ergonomics of the chair at the head. He flicks a lever somewhere underneath the seat with the confidence of a NASCAR driver shifting and accelerating into the winning position, the chair tilts back and in the same motion, Dylan’s immaculately worn cowboy boots rise up and find a home on the wooden surface. He sweeps off the hood, removes the sunglasses with a precise pincer grasp on the bridge, and looks up at the three people at the front of the room: “Whaddya got?” The question comes out more like a secret, but he’s got nothing more to say.

The first exec fiddles with his shirt collar and presses a button on the embedded console. A title slide appears on the screen to his left: “Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol 13: Proposal One.” He clears his throat but before the first word is emitted, there’s a creak from Dylan’s chair. He’s holding up his hand, sunglasses still within, like an extra appendage. “There’s no poetry in PowerPoint,” he rasps, “shut that thing off.” The exec flicks his eyes at his colleagues, complies without a word, and starts his pitch. 

“There’s a lot of social media buzz around performances from the Nineties, on YouTube and in various Facebook groups. There’s a consensus building that you had something special going on then, especially in the wake of Time Out Of Mind and all the new songs it put into the set.” Dylan moves his head almost imperceptibly, his way of telling the suit to continue. “So, here’s the cover art for Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Never Ending Nineties - The Baxter-Campbell-Jackson Years.” He slides a glossy printout down the table before resuming. It's a mock-up of a cover featuring photos of Dylan with Bucky Baxter, Larry Campbell and John Jackson. “We based it a little on this Duke Ellington package from a while ago, The Blanton-Webster Years. Won a Grammy, highly acclaimed, still mentioned as one of the best catalog releases of all time.”

Dylan contemplates the cover art for a few silent minutes before swinging his legs off the table and leaning in. “That might be good for the Duke,” he says, “having those other fellas names on the cover. But he was six feet under by that time, and I ain’t there yet. Nothing makes me happier than bootlegging those bootleggers on YouTube - that money doesn’t swear - it sings - but no.” He doesn’t even need to say “next” for the next victim to know she’s at the plate. 

“Thanks, Bob,” the woman says, looking a little overheated in expensive denim, and glancing at some bullet points in her binder, “Your Live at Budokan album is one of your most divisive, with some people claiming it was too glitzy, like Elvis in Vegas. What most people don’t know is that you rehearsed that band for over a month before going tour. It was one of your largest groups and you wanted them tight.” Dylan cocks his head, he’s interested. “You had them work up 150 songs in preparation, many of which were never performed outside of their original studio versions. And there are two previously unpublished songs that were only ever worked on during those rehearsals.” She stops talking, gets up, walks down to where Dylan is sitting and puts a piece of paper in front of him. 

The mock-up shows a photo of Dylan in a circle with all the Budokan musicians, standing in front of a stage dense with gear. The words on top say, Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Budokan Or Bust. Dylan picks up the sheet, giving it a hard stare. The exec hands him another document, which shows the potential track listing. “We’re thinking eight CDs and a DVD for the deluxe version, with a two CD standard issue. We -“ Dylan holds up a hand. 

“This could almost work,” Dylan says slowly, “but there’s one problem. Ian Wallace was perhaps the worst drummer I ever worked with. Every building needs a floor,” he adds cryptically, “Or you got nowhere to stand.” He puts the pages down, pushes them away on the slick wood, and speaks volumes with his eyebrows as he looks at the third A&R person, a balding man with stringy hair and an unkempt beard, typical aging hippie. 

The man reaches under the table, picks up a small musical instrument case and places it on the surface. Looking directly at Dylan, he flicks open the two clasps and lifts the lid, revealing a tambourine nestled in black foam. With his eyes still on Dylan, he picks up the tambourine, shakes it high above his head and brings it dramatically down onto his other hand. There’s a second of silence that he fills with a deliberate rhythm, getting up from his chair, and stalking towards Dylan, making full eye contact and singing, in a thick New York accent: “You may be an ambassador to England or France/You may like to gamble, you may like to dance/You may be the heavyweight champion of the world/You may be a socialite with a long (it sounds like “lawnnnng”) string of pearls/But you’re going to have to serve somebody/Yes, you are, you’re going to have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the lord, but you’re going to have to serve somebody!”

He’s timed it perfectly, so on the last word he stops right in front of Dylan, slapping the tambourine one last time on his hip. Maintaining eye contact, Dylan waves one hand in the air, a wry grin starting on his lined face. The old hippie reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out a wrinkled sheet of paper with his mock-up, unfolds it, and places it in front of Dylan. It shows the singer onstage in a shamanic pose, arms outstretched, wearing a guitar, in full electric preacher mode. Above the picture are the words “Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Gospel Train (1979-1981).”

Dylan indicates the chair closest to him and the man sits down, the other two execs forgotten by both of them. “This I like,” Zimmy says, “because everybody hated and misunderstood that whole time. It was as if I really was Judas - but I had murdered Bob Dylan.” He makes air quotes when saying his name. “So what are we talking here? Live stuff? Rehearsals, outtakes, demos? Hell if I can remember how all those records happened. I DO know for sure that I wanted Saved to be a live album but Columbia said no," He looks pointedly at the other two execs in the room, who pretend to check their phones. "Can we do that?”

“Absolutely,” his new best friend says, pulling another document out of his pocket, “and more, much more.” He unfolds the paper, smoothing it down on the table. It’s an 11x14 spreadsheet, with song names and  recording dates and locations, color-coded to show which songs appear multiple times. “We’ve got all of Saved, except for A Satisfied Mind, in brilliant performances, and all of Slow Train and most of Shot of Love, too! We even dug up 14 unreleased songs. Now listen to this..." He pulls a phone out of his pocket, unlocks it with his face, and makes of couple of gestures. The familiar "bloop" sound is heard as a Google Audio device picks up the signal. He presses play and Slow Train starts playing, but in a completely different version from the one on the studio album. It has a stomping beat and an aggressive edge, with two extraordinary guitar solos that push it into the stratosphere. By the time it ends, Dylan is pounding his hand on the table with the rhythm.

"Hot damn!" Zimmy exclaims, "That was some hot shit band, huh? You know, I got Jim Keltner, the ultimate studio rat drummer to come on the road with me. He told me he cried after every song on Slow Train Coming. Little did he know we'd be out for almost three years! And Fred Tackett on guitar, he was at loose ends after Lowell George died, and Little Feat was in flux. Then I had Tim Drummond, a gut-punching bass player if there ever was one. Spooner Oldham on keys - name someone better." He shakes his head slowly, marveling in the memory of it. "Then I had a little gospel choir to lend some sweetening, as the old record men used to say. Talking about Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, Regina McCrary...couple others. These women could make the phone book sound like hallelujah. I even married one of them," he finishes slyly. "Good as they were, though, I think we should leave their solo sets off-a this thing. We want to focus people on my songs, do a little hard-sell. Same goes for my sermons - who knows what the heck I was going on about, anyhow. I was in the moment. That moment has past, but the songs' time is still to come."

The stringy-haired man utters a near-silent "Amen," and plays a few more songs. Everything sounds sizzling. Ballads burn with quiet fire, rockers are super-charged, even in rehearsal, and abandoned songs hint at new directions and further possibilities. One standout is a rehearsal of Slow Train that seems to come out of the mist, horns and percussion giving it sonic equivalence to Bob Marley & The Wailers circa 1979. Another rehearsal take, of Caribbean Wind featuring a weeping pedal steel, is finally, maybe, a definitive take of a most elusive song. Zimmy listens carefully, then remarks, almost to himself, "That one I couldn't quite grasp what it was about when I finished it."* There's also a very different, searing version of the same song, from its only concert outing in 1980, and a never-before-heard song called Making A Liar Out Of Me that's nearly the equivalent of Blind Willie McTell's surprise appearance on the first Bootleg Series release.

After a couple more live tracks, Dylan puts up a finger: "You hear how good this stuff sounds? We wanted to make a live album, remember, or albums - Shot Of Love could've been better, too - so we took extra care with our stage set-up. Look at the pictures - in many of them you'll see a four foot by 12 foot piece of Plexiglas, in between the drums and the choir. We put that baffle in there to keep the vocal bleed out of the drum mics. S'gonna make it a hell of a lot easier to master the tracks, since most of them are from cassette, right?" Everyone else in the room nods in unison. They know they've just had a brief audience with expert producer Jack Frost.

Dylan picks up the spreadsheet, starts running his finger down the columns, nodding once in a while. "I like this. You've got the cream of the live crop up top, looks like - that can be a standard release, two CDs or four LPs, and then you've got some rehearsals and outtakes, plus two more complete shows for the deluxe set. Sweet." He takes a last look at the document, puts a finger on the title and says, "We might have a problem with this Gospel Train business. What about Trouble In Mind?" Zimmy thinks for a minute. "No - Trouble No More, 'cause no one will have a problem with my "gospel era" (air quotes again) when they hear this big ol'box of goodness!" He pushes the spreadsheet back over to the old hippie, who returns with it to his seat and packs it away with the tambourine. "Good. Let's get this out by fall, right?" Everyone makes agreeable noises as Father Bob Zimmy stands up, corrals his frizzy hair with the hoodie, drawing it tight, and slips the sunglasses over his eyes. Before anyone can say a goodbye, he's in the wind. And they've got work to do.

*This is the only real Dylan quote, from an interview with Cameron Crowe referenced in the liner notes. The story about Jim Keltner's tears is also factual, as related by him to Mojo Magazine, December 2017.

Note: I haven't seen the documentary that comes with the Deluxe Edition yet. I'm sure the live footage is scintillating, but the sermons, written by Luc Santé and performed by Michael Shannon have proven divisive among viewers. Plus ća change...

Pick your version of Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 - every home should have one. Still among the unconverted? Check out the sampler on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:

Dylan-Lamar-Misty: An American Trilogy
Off Your Radar Issue #21: Slow Train Coming
Sail On Bob 

This will be my last regular review of the year - time to get on with detailing the Best Of 2017!