Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE DILLARDS: Wheatstraw Suite

The Dillards - Wheatstraw Suite
Having made a name for themselves with guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show, The Dillards, known primarily as a bluegrass group, released this half-hour opus in 1968. While bluegrass is the key ingredient in Wheatstraw Suite, the record is augmented with Byrds-style folk-rock and Nashville country music. Every song is breezy and short, with not a wasted note in sight. The songs are a mix of covers and originals, but they all fit cohesively with each other without sounding identical. A few of them feature orchestral arrangements, but low in the mix, just adding a touch of depth while leaving room for the dobro, mandolin, pedal steel and Herb Pedersen’s rollicking banjo, which is the most ear-catching thing going on in many of these songs, (particularly the rolling and tumbling instrumental “Bend the Strings”.)

Pedersen, who sings lead vocals on five of the thirteen songs included here, replaced Doug Dillard, who left the group shortly before the recording of this album (he went on to be the “Dillard” in
Dillard and Clark). When Pedersen isn’t singing lead in his broad country tenor, Rodney Dillard takes over with his lithe, reedy voice, turning in a particularly affecting performance on “Lemon Chimes”. Both singers are great, and even better when the whole group is harmonizing, as on their cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” or The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, (which is a great choice for this group, since it was practically a bluegrass tune to begin with).

While there isn’t a weak song in the bunch, it’s a good thing they saved “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” for last, because I don’t think any song would want to be the song that has to follow something so beautiful and heart-breaking. Written by Jesse Kincaid, it’s a gentle waltz about a sad and strange woman and her lonely death. The Dillards allow it to build from verse to verse, adding more layers of sound as they do, wringing an unbelievable amount of emotion from such a simple song, never resorting to histrionic melodrama. These lyrics are particularly affecting, though it would hard to explain why:

She lived in a sorcerer’s room
she pounded the table and brandished a broom
she turned 10,000 when she touched the moon

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

MADVILLAIN: Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix

Madvillain - Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix
Madvillainy was a perfect meeting of the minds: Not only were Madlib and DOOM both contributing work that ranks among the best they’ve done to date, but they proved to be an impeccable pairing. This might not be a surprise, as each man’s affinity for developing a new conceptual alter-ego for just about every project is matched only by their shared propensity for smoking marijuana. What the Madvillain project proved, however, was how parallel they are musically, particularly in how comfortable each man is with an unpolished, rhythmic looseness. Usually eschewing computers for manually-controlled samplers, they both employ a production style miles away from the pro-tools beatmapping and rigid drum-machines of slick aristo-rap. (For reference, see DOOM’s series of Special Herbs releases and Madlib’s Beat Konducta series.) Their rapping is similar as well: DOOM uses irregular meters and rhyme schemes, hovering around the beat with an Ornette Coleman flow that refuses to be tied too closely to the ones and twos. Madlib, as the helium-voiced rap cartoon Quasimoto, mumbles his lyrics in short, irregular spurts.

As musically kindred as they are, and even though I think Madlib is the better producer and DOOM is the better rapper, I’d love to see a record that switches their roles, backing baked Quasimoto raps with DOOM’s Metal Fingers production.

That would have been an interesting approach to the long- (and anxiously-) awaited follow-up to their sole album-length collaboration, but what we got instead was a Madlib remix of the first record. It may not be fair to think of this as the proper follow-up; maybe Madvillain 1 ½ would have been a better title, but DOOM’s increasingly erratic behavior/chicanery doesn’t bode well for a return the prolific release schedule one enjoyed by fans of the metal-faced villain, so it may be quite some time before we get completely new Madvillain music.

So what we have here is 51 minutes (that’s a longer running-time than the original) of hallucinatory sonic weirdness, the bulk of which is made up of DOOM’s vocals from the original Madvillainy (plus Madvillain’s non-album cut “Monkey Suite” and one vocal from DOOM’s collaboration with Danger Mouse) set to all new Madlib beats. In between, there’s more non-sequiter audio-collage than usual, even for a Madlib production. Production-wise, this resembles Quasimoto’s Unseen more closely than any other Madlib Invasion.

The charge that DOOM’s rapping is too disassociated from the accompanying beats, (a charge I myself made when I first heard him, before I warmed up to his approach,) is, paradoxically, refuted by the disassociation between the vocals and the beats on many of the tracks here, as compared with their counterparts on the original album. In their original context, these vocals were nestled into the music with an uncanny, psychedelic energy, correlating to Madlib’s samples in unconventional, but brilliant ways. Here, however, they sound detached. Maybe (if you don’t mind me acknowledging my own subjectivity), this is in part because I know how this album was made, with vocals ripped from their original setting with tempos stretched to match new instrumentation, but even a blind listen-test (for which finding a guinea pig is probably impossible, because anyone who’s on board with DOOM’s loose-rhythm flow has probably heard the original album) would reveal an awkward incongruity.

Madlib is an excellent producer, (my favorite in hip-hop) and one would think he’d be able to overcome obstacles like these. Maybe it’s me; maybe my affinity and familiarity with the original makes me too loyal to it, too unwilling to accept a redux. (Another subjectivity alert!) For example, “Borrowed Time” replaces the “Accordian” beat with an ominous airiness that I would love under other circumstances, but when I hear the lyrics, it’s hard not to miss the original production. If these instrumentals had new vocals from DOOM, I think I would like this almost as much as the first Madvillain release, maybe more, depending on the quality of DOOM’s contribution.

Some moments still work. “Invasion (Interlude)”, a 90-second instrumental, would have fit right in on Beat Konducta Vol. 1. Perhaps owing more to the shortcomings of the original, “Drainos” is a success, repurposing DOOM’s regrettable singing from “Rainbows“ and layers it over a less tonal backdrop, actually improving on the original track. “Running Around With Another” avoids sounding like a remix, and would have been a highlight on the original.

The original Madvillainy was a grower, so maybe in time I’ll like this more. As it stands, I think it’s a good, but not great follow-up.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

HEATWAVE: Central Heating

Heatwave - Central Heating

Heatwave’s Rod Temperton is probably best known for having written a few songs for Michael Jackson, including the title track from Thriller, a song you are required to like if we are to co-exist peacefully. Heatwave, the group he put together with brothers Johnnie and Keith Wilder in the mid-1970s, made five albums between 1976 and 1982. You might know their 1976 ballad “Always and Forever”.

Central Heating is their sophomore LP, and it’s a succulent slab of smooth groove. This is a slicker brand of funk than the gritty, James Brown-style 60s funk, and a less loony brand than His Eminence George Clinton and his disciples. This lies somewhere in the ballpark of Kool and the Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire; shoulder-shuffling, Soul Train-style, feel-good music.

The album opens with a “message for the nation” about dancing and getting funky and that sort of business. It’s exactly the kind of platform I support, and the kind we’re just not hearing enough of in this contentious election season. The band warns against the total bummer of being one of those “Party Poops”, and we should all heed their advice. Hardships are acknowledged on this record, like the rent and welfare woes described on “Send out for Sunshine” but Heatwave invites you to forget all about them and just get down. The album standout “The Groove Line” invites you to “Leave your worries behind” and it makes a musical argument convincing enough to win over even the most cynical person you know. Give it a try! “The Groove Line” funks harder than anything else here; after a broiling intro, spiky rhythm guitars set up lead vocalist Keith Wilder’s snappy commands: “Pack your grip! Taking you on a trip!”

Much of the album consists of ballads, and they're just as excellent as their dancing cousins. "Mind Blowing Decisions” is the best of the slow-burners here. With a gorgeous sway and a counter-melody to die for (“Must decide how to go…”) this will find its way onto your after-dark playlist.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

METAFORM: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Metaform - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

One afternoon last year I was listening to a local rock radio station and the disc jockey, after playing Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, mused about having heard those drums sampled countless times. “And we believe,” he said, apparently speaking on behalf of the middle-aged, ponytail-wearing Guitar Center employees that listen to his program “that sampling is not music.” He called it “stealing.”

It’s only fair to mention that “When the Levee Breaks” is one of the few times Led Zeppelin actually gave credit to the source of their own theft; the album jacket credits Memphis Minnie, the actual writer of the song, as a co-author, along with Page and Plant, who did no more to change it than the countless other performers who have interpolated it. Led Zeppelin were notorious plagiarizers: Jimmy Page didn’t write “Dazed and Confused”, and Led Zeppelin were not, contrary to the writing credit, the authors of “In My time of Dying.” Listen to the song “Taurus” by the band Spirit (a great band, by the way,) and then listen to “Stairway to Heaven”, released two years later. Yeah, you could call that plagiarism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

There’s a quote often attributed to T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Picasso is credited with saying “Mediocre artists borrow, great artists steal.” Stravinsky is quoted as saying “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” Obviously, someone was stealing from someone, which, given the nature of the quote, is apropos. T.S. Eliot went on to say “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Creating art through the amalgamation of appropriated sources is not new; even the book of Genesis is made up of various myths, recast to suit ancient Judaism. The American folk tradition includes countless songs of ambiguous origin, many assembled from parts of other songs. “Well I woke up this morning,” the Stagger Lee story, and the 12-bar blues chord progression must have started somewhere, but we have come to enjoy them as a communal pool of raw materials available to anyone wishing to create music.

Now that our interaction with music is so dominated by recorded music, it’s only natural that recordings join that communal pool. The Amen Break, for example, is like a modern version of the 12-bar blues progression. (See this great short film on the break's significance: While legal ideas about copyright and intellectual property interfere from time to time, the art of sampling has thrived and allowed for some of the most creative popular music made since the late 1970s. In fact, without sampling, Hip-Hop and Drum and Bass music wouldn’t exist. Thus, the world would be 30% more boring.

Metaform’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giants wouldn’t exist either, and my summer would have been 30% more boring. I spent practically all summer with a pair of headphones pumping this music into my brain and I’m still not tired of it.

This isn’t a beat-tape or a feature-length mashup (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things,) this is a fully formed, original album, probably the best of its kind since Endtroducing.

Metaform doesn’t just stack beat-mapped loops on top of each other; he composes songs from raw materials samples from other records, unopposed to recording his own instrumentation to sweeten the deal. This album blazes through 19 tracks in 45 minutes and there’s never a dull moment. Where some producers will drag one idea out past its limit, Metaform knows exactly when to change course, and this album is perfectly paced and constructed to create a “whole of feeling”. Laid back, soulful and shifting carefully between dusky moodiness and bright cheerfulness, this music makes it clear that it didn’t take Metaform five years to make it because he’s lazy, but because his attention to detail is impeccable.

The drums sometimes skitter and sometimes bob, horns and guitars swell and disappear, synths percolate and a number of sonic textures drop in; vibraphones (“Lonely Boy”), flutes (“Lamenting Break”) and a fantastic saxophone solo (“Urban Velvet”).

Metaform makes good use of the human voice, as well. The melancholic “Sunday” layers a wispy vocal snippet over twinkling keys and muscular drums to great effect, and the Radiator Lady from Eraserhead makes an unexpected cameo during “Heaven Can Wait”.

A lot of the samples used on this record have been used before; David Axelrod, James Brown, the “Apache” break. In the blog on his Myspace, Metaform explains “we are all digging in the same crates… A photographer can take a picture of the Pyramids in Egypt, which have been photographed millions of times, but their picture will still be totally unique. There are many factors to consider: experience, lens, angle, and so on. The picture will be unique.” T.S Eliot would be proud.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

ORNETTE COLEMAN: The Shape of Jazz to Come

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come

This is unpredictable, organic stuff with all sorts of gnarled twists and turns and gorgeous solos. Typically, the pieces on this record consist of a brief melody, then a lot of improvisation, then a reprise of that melody; a pretty familiar way to structure jazz. What was innovative (though probably not unprecedented) about The Shape of Jazz to Come when it was first released was the absence of chord structures. Ornette Coleman’s quartet has no piano or guitar; just Ornette on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on the drums. All four are dynamic, expressive musicians and the music they make together is incredibly engaging thanks to the ramshackle spontaneity Ornette allows them with his anything-goes approach to leading a combo. Unlike the tyrannical perfectionism of Charles “Fisticuffs” Mingus, Ornette allowed his sidemen to play things as they pleased in a democratic collaboration. While certain things are sacrificed, like Mingus’ compositional genius and the immaculate accuracy of his groups, what we get in exchange makes this one of the most invigorating records of its era, an era brimming with invigorating records.

Don Cherry’s trumpet flutters like some so-far undiscovered jazz sprite from another dimension or swings like headturning dancefloor hips. Higgins is an ideal anchor, energetic and playful. Haden’s dexterous bass is so snappy that not only does he make it sound easy, he’ll leave you convinced that without it, Western civilization would implode for lack of bottom. And Coleman…oh man.

Ornette Coleman plays the saxophone like Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar. Or, to correct the chronology of that statement, Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar like Ornette Coleman plays the saxophone. He plays saxophone the way I imagine saxaphones being played in my wildest dreams. He plays his horn the way people talk, he makes it human; sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming, and sometimes not making a whole lot of sense. His clear, bright tone is supposedly thanks to a plastic sax (though I suspect it has as much to do with the user as it does with the hardware), melodic lines sway and snarl with a snaky stride, and his splintering, seizuring solos flicker and dance like a good campfire. Listen to that boppy solo on “Congeniality”! Listen to those acrobatic bursts of sound! It’s the kind of moment that makes you want to root him on with a hearty “Go cat, go!”

This jubilant sax is located in the left channel of the stereo mix, with the trumpet in the right and the rhythm section steadily centered. While some may see the sax/trumpet interaction as sloppy, particularly when they play unison rhythms, I like that Coleman’s sax and Cherry’s trumpet retain their own identities even when playing together. They don’t sound like two notes on the same keyboard. They slither over their rhythm section as two unmistakable singularities in a tenuous tandem. These guys don’t play it safe, and the fact that they can sound like they’re going to fall apart at any moment gives the proceedings a sense of tension. If you’re into rock music, think of this quartet as the jazz equivalent of The Who in their prime: four musicians seemingly determined to make their part interesting enough to stand on its own, while somehow, against all odds and logic, fitting together as an ensemble.

Every one of these songs has something great to distinguish it from the others, even beyond their memorable, unique melodies. There are some nice details here. “Focus on Sanity” has a great bit at the start that sounds like the saxophone is laughing, (that horn is like a human being!) and then there’s a fantastic upright bass solo before the performance climaxes with a wonderful, understated drum solo. (Everyone gets a chance to shine on this most democratic of records.) The opening few minutes of “Peace” alternate bowed bass with bursts of winds, with the drums completely dropping out or playing in unison with the winds from time to time. It’s really, really neat. And don’t even try to tell me that Haden and Higgins don’t get your toes a-tappin’ during “Chronology”.

Like all the best jazz groups, The Ornette Coleman Quartet doesn't simply conjure up images of musicians in a studio and musings on structures and scales. They invoke real emotion. Give a listen to this album’s opening number “Lonely Woman”, with its quiet locomotive cymbals and its seductive melody swelling and swaying like moonlight and ruby red lips. That saxophone cries and cries, not like a saxophone, but like a wounded lover.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Radiohead - Kid A

The Great Big Canon of Important Records is a silly idea, and of course I don’t buy into it much, but whenever someone makes a Great Big List of the Best Albums Ever I have to sheepishly admit that I own most of the top 100. Like it or not, my exploration of popular music began with the canon.

The first album I ever listened to in its entirety was the “White Album” and the next three or four were Beatles albums as well. The Joshua Tree, Dark Side of the Moon, IV, London Calling, Blood on the Tracks and Who’s Next were all albums that impacted my young brain in the early days of my pop-obsession, and Fear of a Black Planet, Daydream Nation, A Love Supreme, Ziggy Stardust, There’s a Riot Going On and Doolittle have all become favorites since then. Though many of my favorite records are perennially canonized, I can’t help it if I recoil from those lists of albums that all start to look the same. You know… like this list in this paragraph.

If there is one thing I can say in favor of the canon, it’s that it has the potential to make a specific record a communal experience, a work that (albeit only in hindsight) provides a definitive view into a specific zeitgeist. When my mother was in college, everyone knew Tapestry by heart. People have, to my shock and amazement, excused the behavior of a pedophile because “Thriller is SO GOOD!”.

Peeking into zeitgeists isn’t why I listen to music, though. I love Are You Experienced but couldn’t care less what people were doing at Woodstock. For the most part, the canon makes it hard to approach a recording with open ears, unfettered by expectation and unthreatened by that guilty “What-am-I-missing?” feeling I got when I first heard Pet Sounds.

When I was growing up, listening to Abbey Road, for example, I would try to imagine what it was like for people hearing it upon its initial release. I would feel a twinge of jealousy, and a dull regret that I’d never have the experience of hearing an album like that before it was tainted by critics, nostalgic fandom and, I suppose, canonicity. See, the cannon also teaches you that pop music’s masterpieces are already made, and will never be topped. Unless Jann Wenner says so.

I know better now, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear a lot of what are now my favorite albums before they were burdened by expectation. It helps that I started listening to music that was not made before my sixth birthday, music that has had less time to be dissected and worshipped. The first record that convinced me to keep up with the present was, (speaking of dissected and worshipped) Radiohead’s OK Computer. Even my first listen to that was tainted, though. It had, in only a few short months, already been canonized by the sorts of people who make big lists of albums (gulp), leaving it ravaged, analyzed and written about way more than any rock and roll record needs to be (double gulp). Hearing it for the first time (Memorial Day weekend, 1998, my uncle's basement,) was the exact moment when I decided that popular music wasn't a dead art with all possibilities exhausted, but it wasn’t a moment of discovery; the album’s achievement was already conventional wisdom.

My fist genuine moment of discovery, then, was October 3rd, 2000.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but in 2000, the prospect of a new Radiohead album inspired curiosity more than rabid anticipation. It wasn’t something we felt assured we would love. It was a follow-up to an album we loved, but plenty of great albums have been succeeded by duds. (Ok everyone; stop glaring at the Stone Roses.) Some of my excitement probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t think there was a whole lot else going on in popular music at the time. (I was wrong, of course; 2000 was also the year that brought us Dopethrone, Deltron 3030 and The Unseen.)

My tradition of buying Radiohead albums on the day of release began when my mother drove me to Best Buy after school to get Kid A. I remember not wanting to listen to it in the car because I wanted to hear it the way I liked to hear Pink Floyd albums: from start to finish, uninterrupted. When we got home I sat in the basement, by lamplight, and did just that. I was transfixed.

Kid A is like an encyclopedia of the music people discover when they graduate from “someone who likes music” to “music geek.” Free jazz (“The National Anthem”), ambient music (“Treefingers”), “experimental” electronic music (the title track) and elements of modern classical, dub and Krautrock melt together in a way that isn’t innovative so much as it is well-integrated. Of course, in 2000 I didn’t know what any of those things were, but even after this record was exposed to me as a stew of influences, I still love it, which is a testament to the ingenious creativity and the quality of the songs.

At the record's very beginning, the 10/4 keyboard pulse of “Everything in It's Right Place” sucks you into embryonic hallucinations and uses Thom Yorke's urgent and feeble vocals to create a neck-twisting intensity without relying on guitars or drums. It's an odd and beautiful song, pressing out of some sonic womb somewhere, and I distinctly remember being bewildered and confused and completely engrossed when I first heard it. The title track follows, much less repetitive and all the more confusing because of its unusual structure and incomprehensible robotic vocals. While live performances of this song would bring out an anthemic, yearning quality, the studio version does a lot to cement this album’s climate: If OK Computer was a war with technology, then the sound of Kid A must mean that technology won. The neo-luddite militia armed with guitars is gone, and (some years after it happened to Kraftwerk), the Man-Machine has taken over. The alienating neon metropolis of OK Computerhas been replaced with a ruined, claustrophobic atmosphere and songs that, rather than raging against the (literal) machine, slump down in defeated melancholy.

“Treefingers” bored me at first. I kept waiting for something to happen and when it didn’t I felt cheated; down to just nine real songs, bummer. Of course, at the time I hadn't heard of ambient music, and if I had, I would have thought it was all boring and stupid (I don't feel that way now, of course…) “Treefingers” is important though. The impeccable construction and sequencing of this album depends on every track being right where it is- everything in its right place, y'might say. Kid A calms down at just the right moments (the dissonant horn torture of “The National Anthem” giving way to the swaying strum of “How to Disappear Completely”) and picks up again at just the right moments (“Treefingers” followed by the record's most straightforward rock song, “Optimistic”.) When the dense, polyrhythmic “In Limbo” is followed by the lone, untangled drum machine of “Idioteque”, Kid A officially becomes the textbook on how to sequence an album.

“Idioteque” is such a brilliantly simple song it’s a wonder that no one wrote it before. An unrelenting beat is joined by a simple motif that could be a minor-key variation of the Simpsons theme (Psssst: It’s a Paul Lansky sample.) The various vocal parts bleed together and the simple, sorrowful melody becomes more and more panicked and apocalyptic: "Women and children first!" It’s the most chilling moment in a repertoire filled with chilling moments.

And how else could it end but with a dirge? “Motion Picture Soundtrack” is perhaps the most beautiful ode to depression ever penned. The harps and soprano voices (real or synthesized, I can't tell) give the impression of floating through those pearly gates, and Thom promises "I will see you in the next life." We started with something vaguely resembling birth, so it's fitting to end with death.

Was this really a genuine moment of discovery? Not quite; everyone and their cousin was geeked for this record. That’s a good thing. Kid A is so good I want everyone I know to hear it at least once.

Teenagers a decade from now will listen to this album and peek into that Y2K zeitgeist, but I’m going to assume that peeking into zeitgeists won’t be why they listen to music, either. I hope I’m not contributing to the analysis and dissection that will hinder their honest enjoyment of this record, but luckily, it’s good enough to withstand even the most rabid fanboy ravings.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

FLEET FOXES: Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
An essay in the liner notes to the self-titled debut from Fleet Foxes recalls the disappointment felt upon discovering photographs that overlap vivid memories, and the uncertainty that those memories were born independent of the photos. Making folk music immediately invites accusations of simulacra, charges that the music in question is a photograph and not an authentic memory. This leads to a lot of desperate appropriation and pastiche. Certainly appropriation is a part of the folk tradition, but it’s easier to imitate that tradition than to stand inside of it. Because so many of the melodies and chords in American folk are similar or identical, (dig the Delta blues for an example) the battle to make moving folk music is won or lost in the performance. A great performer posses a certain quality that I’m hesitant to label “authenticity” (bad memories of East vs. West gangta rap), but which relies on emotiveness and charisma. The worst folk performers change their diction and accent to imitate Americana stereotypes. The best folk performers just ARE. Doesn’t even matter what they are, most of the time, so long as they ARE.

Take this band, for example. Rather than romanticize and imitate music and song rooted in America’s past, the Fleet Foxes inhabit it themselves. They do so quite vividly, in fact, and rising above the irony or pastiche that so often accompanies “folk music” they don’t lean on someone else’s imagery; not Faulkner’s, not
Leadbelly’s and not Dylan’s. This music sounds like the humid South, but hedges westward thanks to the thick, Brian Wilson-style harmonies. No fake accents or Dustbowl posturing exists. Singer Robin Pecknold’s voice is as passive as it is beautiful. He tends to lets the songs themselves do the emoting, no need for hysterical hamming. The emotiveness and charisma is there, but it is so natural you may not notice it consciously.

Fleet Foxes manage to vary their song structures without
jarring convolution and their arrangements are perfectly subtle; while acoustic guitars pervade, piano, organ, mandolin and hand percussion dutifully arrive when needed. Occasionally drums and electric guitars are present, but just as often the instruments drop out, as on the closing track “Oliver James”, which leaves Pecknold’s voice almost totally exposed. He’s got a great voice, a timeless voice, an effortless voice.

There are a lot of great moments here. There’s a fantastic campfire round in “
White Winter Hymnal”. The instruments fold in at the start of “He Doesn’t Know Why”, gradually elevating from heavenly to EVEN MORE heavenly. The song’s opening melody is Beatles-quality. So are the harmonies. “Your Protector” opens with mellotron flutes and a composed mourn that morphs into a gallant march. And so on. This album is a great moment from start to finish. The surprising abundance of reverb, rather than mask thinness of voice, enhances the more chilling moments on this record, pushing it into nocturnal spaces. I can imagine this band performing in a tiny white church hidden in the woods. They’d be worth the hike.

I don’t know if I love this record just yet (I only heard it for the first time about a week ago,) but an infatuation exists.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

BOBBY WOMACK: Lookin' For A Love Again

Bobby Womack - Lookin' for a Love Again
Most of these songs are over before they go anywhere, but they don't need to go anywhere because they're already there, and so are you when you listen to them. The problem is, once you’re there, you want to STAY there. Rather than stretching these songs out to Fela Kuti proportions, however, Bobby Womack leaves you wanting more, biting your tongue to hold back pleas of "Rewind, selector!"

Perhaps the economical running times are a symptom of Womack's crisp, confident showmanship. With a voice that recalls his old mentor
Sam Cooke's whiskey/velvet croon, he is a master of both vocal restraint and freedom, never falling into the equally tempting traps of tasteless histrionics or catatonic, technical recitation. He's smooth, very smooth. As a descriptor of music, "smooth" is almost always pejorative; connoting a certain clinical slickness. Womack’s smoothness, however, is different. His singing is heartfelt, and he's giving it 100%, but in a manner that suggests giving 99% or less is something he doesn’t even know how to do. He's good, and he knows he’s good, but he doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. The second "You're Welcome, Stop on By" kicks in, every head within earshot starts nodding along. The hard funk of "Don't Let Me Down" can not be listened to sitting down. Even the most devout feminist will sing along with "Lookin' For A Love", despite the looking-for-a-maid lyrics. And if you needed further proof that Bobby Womack can cross any boundaries, look how deftly he fits into the slightly more country-western settings of "Copper Kettle" and "Point of No Return".

This is a modest masterpiece, beaming with exuberant musicianship (dig that Muscle Shoals horn section!) and a strong, memorable repertoire of songs. Why it has remained overlooked is a mystery. This deserves to be placed among the best works of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

BIG STAR: Third / Sister Lovers

Big Star - Third / Sister Lovers
Third/Sister Lovers appeals to me as if it were a dusty diary discovered under some boxes in the musty old utility room. Listening to this record is like overhearing a private conversation. The songs play out like secrects, some of them nostalgic, some of them agonizing, all of them candid.

This album has been released in a few different configurations, but the 1992 CD reissue is, luckily, what you're most likely to find. The extra tracks appended to the now-rearranged tracklist fit in seamlessly. A haunting reading of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" and the more-than-adequate run-through of The Kinks' "Till the End of the Day," for example, are welcome additions.

They aren't the only covers; even in its original form, the album contained a cover of
The Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" that annihilates the forced, stilted original. This take on the song brings out a gentler element and is incredibly lovely. The "she's a femme fatale" hook becomes the indecipherable voice of some siren and Alex Chilton's vocals are fragile and pleading. Like most of the record, the arrangement feels a little uneasy; as if it were a rehearsal and the parts weren’t quite finalized. For all I know that could actually be the case, but the spontaneity that comes with that is a big part of this album’s appeal.

Perhaps as a result of the circumstances surrounding its creation (anecdotes I won’t burden you by repeating) this album is reckless, frantic and totally fearless. Alex Chilton is throwing himself into this music like most rock stars are too cool to ever do. It doesn’t feel incomplete, however.

The production is simple, with a fairly rough mix and more reverb than most would prefer. Throughout the proceeding Jody Stephens plays the drums like he’s trying to stop the kit from falling over. On "Kangaroo" and the rollicking "Kizza Me" the record actually sounds as if were in danger of coming apart at the seams, but instead of making it unfocused this gives the music it’s distinct personality; one that is anxious and pitiable. Little vocal asides ("we’re gonna get born now", "play it for me, guitarist"), that punching-the-keys piano solo in the opening track, the cowbell that appears randomly for one verse and scores of other spontaneous details crop up – the kinds of "mistakes" that are so integral to a song you can’t imagine that song without them.

A few of the tracks are familiar
Big Star territory with just slight twist. "Thank You Friends" is beautiful power-pop with only sprightly strings and gospel backup vocals to distinguish it from the first two Big Star albums, as well as the sneering, sarcastic vocals that give it an extra sinister kick. "Jesus Christ" is an is as good as anything on Radio City but with lyrics that just happen, incongruously, to be about the birth of Christ (notice the Yuletide sleigh bells on the chorus.) "You Can’t Have Me" is a great 60s garage rock nugget; all slashing electric guitar chords and retro organ, still maintaining the frustrated, depressed edge that ties this album together.

The depression really kicks in on "Big Black Car." An airy, depressing meditation on self-deception, this is a total inversion of typical power-pop car songs like "Back of a Car" (from Radio City). Listen to Chilton's falsetto in the coda for an example of what people mean when they say a piece of music gives them goosebumps. "Holocaust" is the most depressing song here, to the point where it could easily be described as "harrowing." Over simple piano chords and a weeping slide guitar, an exhausted Chilton sings from some irretrievable depth: "Everybody goes, leaving those that fall behind… your mother's dead, you’re on your own… you’re a wasted face, a sad-eyed lie, a holocaust." Faint backing vocals and a cello appear, absolutely heart-wrenching. It's the emotional centerpiece of Third/Sister Lovers.

This is what the offspring of
Astral Weeks and Pinkerton would sound like; dormitory singer-songwriter cries for help ("Get me out of here/I hate it here") floating over a serene soundscape that manages to be sparse and lush at the same time. And when Chilton sings "Girl if you’re listening, I’m sorry I can’t help it…" doesn’t it sound just a bit like "And God, if you’re listening"?

BURIAL: Untrue

Burial - Untrue

Every time I’ve tried to describe this album to one of my friends, (which, for a while there, was an almost daily activity,) I’ve compared it to that near-ache of trying to remember a song you heard only once, when you can just barely form an idea of some snippet, but it’s hazy and unanchored. That’s what this record sounds like while you’re listening to it. It’s a shadowy, nocturnal record with a wide-open, empty atmosphere. Voices drift in and out, mangled, remote and disembodied like echoes. Percussion clatters and clinks in a gangly shuffle. The murky synths are nervously aloof. One affecting moment after another sneaks up and mesmerizes, like the sad child voice that strains through "Endorphin", the dub-gospel coda to "Shell of Light", and the surprisingly upbeat final track, "Raver", which offers a light at the end of a very dark tunnel that you didn’t particularly want to leave anyway.

So far, Dubstep is a pop-bandwagon that’s been worth hopping. I can’t imagine anyone actually dancing to those Kode9 tracks that crawl like they’re dying under snailspeed Spaceape rhymes, but apparently people do that sometimes. I do know that on a pair of headphones in the middle of the night, this kind of stuff is really fresh and invigorating. Inevitably, a (sub?)genre of British dance music has to make the leap from drug-addled crowd-grinds into bedroom-recluse CD libraries, and Burial is just the man (or woman, no one knows for sure) for the job. Soul Jazz records put out a nice Dubstep compilation this year called Box of Dub, and as good as it is (it’s super-cool and highly recommended), it’s amazing how adeptly Burial’s contribution blows every other track out of the water.

One has to wonder how much of Burial’s music is meticulously designed and how much is instinctually made. Every last detail here evokes something and contributes to the big picture. Like the way the sampled vocals in the title track, recontextualized and almost incongruous, relate to each so uncannily. Or the way the snippets of lyrics in one song are often reminiscent of the snippets in another. Or the way the chords in "Homeless" seem like they’re going to resolve a certain way but never do, never losing the tension seething under the surface no matter how many times they repeat. Or like the way "Etched Headplate" threatens to develop into a full-blown pop chorus, but can’t push past a muffling layer of…something; the same something that obscures every sound here. These sounds are coated in a thin layer of mist, damp like the three-in-the-morning chill that makes you pull up your hood and zip up just a little higher. When you hear this album you feel like the rest of the world is asleep, or raptured up to dubstep heaven (St. Skream at the gates), leaving you all alone with the blurred memory of distant raves and white labels and sub-sub-bass frequencies.

YESTERDAY'S NEW QUINTET: Yesterday's Universe

Yesterday's New Quintet - Yesterday's Universe
The latest installment in Madlib’s Beat Konducta series was a little disappointing, but the latest record from his jazz-hop fusion side project is one of the finest recordings yet from the exceptionally prolific producer. Yesterday’s New Quintet is a jazz combo comprised of five musicians who are all actually Otis Jackson Jr. a/k/a Madlib a/k/a DJ Rels a/k/a Quasimoto etc. Each of the five members has released an EP of one of their side-projects, and while those EPs are enjoyable, they each lean towards tedium after a while. This record, however, is an eclectic compilation of music made by a diverse group of musicians and ensembles who all just so happen to be the same guy, huddled in a basement somewhere with some instruments, turntables, and samplers.

Allegedly, there are some contributions from other people here, but the record sleeve dispenses with any personnel listings to keep the ostensible intact. Not that you would have gone scrambling for credits anyway; nowhere on this album will you hear a display of Earth-shaking chops. This is all about an endless, hazy groove that captures the FEEL of the jazz records Madlib must have grown up listening to, without recreating their technical aspects. As a spiritual cousin to post-bop and fusion, rather than a genuine entry into either genre, this album filters an out-of-order jazz encyclopedia (with funny doodles in the margins) through Madlib’s glassy-eyed enthusiasm for listening to as may records as he can get his hands on.

Like most Madlib projects, this sounds like it was tossed off in one weekend, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Nothing is over-tweaked or scrutinized. It’s loose, instinctual and free. Kind of like all my favorite jazz records.

PETER GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel III (Melt)

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel
You have to hand it to an album that sneaks up on you the way this one does. A heart beats on the verge of panic (via icy drum kit) and there's that creaking of sneaking, and he's whispering in your ear. He knows all about this stuff, opening windows and moving quietly across floors so you don't wake up. He's thankful for the thrill you give him, laying still as he carefully slides open your dresser drawers, feeling and smelling your pretty dresses. He's the first of the record's disturbed characters we meet, and he's actually the most harmless.

Peter Gabriel's third solo album, popularly called "Melt," is a paranoid, psychotic trip into the collective subconscious of perverts, criminals, obsessives, and the insane, threatening at any moment to explode in a violent melee. Each song is a tone-poem portraying a particular state of mind along a spectrum of unsettling attitudes and behavior that gradually leads to bigotry and violence. Sounds like a hit, eh?

Fortunately, Gabriel manages to execute such a concept without resorting to overblown theatrics or dreary catatonia. Every song here is memorable and sonically unique. Presentation is Peter Gabriel's strength, as he demonstrates on "
Games Without Frontiers", the album's most famous song, featuring ominous synthesizers, Kate Bush's French pronunciation of the title, and nursery rhyme verses about children with dangerously familiar first names playing normal children's games- flying flags, pissing on goons in the jungle, and orchestrating genocide. This is probably the weakest song here from a melodic standpoint, but it's shortcomings as a song are made up for by its achievement as a record. The River Kwai whistling, the distant minimalist guitar, the auxiliary percussion and all the other ingredients give the track more than enough to hold your attention on repeat listens. The entire album is as detailed and textured as well as this song. Gabriel barred his percussionists Jerry Marotta, Morris Pert and Phil Collins from using cymbals, and without that particular crutch they fill up space with a series of fitting and diverse percussive textures. The contributions from the other musicians are just as important; particularly Tony Levin's Chapman Stick playing, which makes "I Don't Remember" a surprisingly funky song about amnesia.

"No Self Control" is an intriguing number: jittery marimbas and groaning guitars all unsettled and threatening to come unhinged at any second, and on top of it all Gabriel's disturbingly convincing vocal performance gets more and more desperate, or maybe more and more resigned, but either way, you wouldn't want to bump into him on your way home. "You know I hate to hurt you…but I don't know how to stop." The way Gabriel fits his voice to the situation is masterful; the whispered chanting on "Intruder", the anthemic flippancy of "Not One Of Us", and the musical acting of the record's centerpiece "Family Snapshot".

"Family Snapshot" opens with a dreamy scene of camera crews and crowds waiting for someone important, a scene set with just voice and piano. Something about "shooting into the light," enough to make you think about an amateur photographer. The intensity slowly builds when he sings "I've been waiting for this…I'm alive" and then we're off, in a heroic, marching singsong of an assassination plot, settling into the modest "I don't really hate you…" It's exceptionally unnerving, and plummets headlong to the climax as our protagonist let's "the bullet fly" and the scene changes to a hushed childhood- a neglected boy with divorcing parents and a toy gun. It's the most disturbing song in Gabriel's repertoire, spine-tingling and melodically heartbreaking.

These lyrics are exercises in minimalist narrative, particularly "Lead a Normal Life". In only six lines a patient in an institution is visited by his parents, who uncomfortably make disjointed small talk about the view, observe that their child isn't allowed to have knives, and ignore the uncomfortable implications of that by abruptly returning the conversation to the view before blurting out "We want to see you lead a normal life." A gentle piano motif sways like the branches outside the patient's window, and there's a sad sense of departure, of being left alone with those strange noises coming from somewhere… The relation between lyric and arrangement is impeccable.

It's hard to say why the album closes with "Biko", which would be much more at home on Security (featuring the song "I Have the Touch", which would be right at home on this record- they should really consider a trade.) This does seem to follow a direct line of thought from "Not One Of Us" and "Games Without Frontiers". The album's focus has expanded from lone sociopaths to entire societies of destructive behavior. While the violence in the previous vignettes was hidden, in late-night trespassing, tucked away in an institution, or in the mind of a neglected child, the murder of Stephen Biko is very, very public. "The eyes of the world are watching now," Gabriel sings in the chilling final lyric before the music fades and the chanting, community of voices is cut short by a gunshot snare.