Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pushing It: Jon Hopkins' Immunity

I was in a weird mood last month when I decided, out of the blue, that I’d take up Nutboy on another one of his recommendations. Back in 2011 he gave me two (really ten, but these two stood out), only one of which I tried at the time: the quirky but beautiful The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth, which ended up being one of my favorites for that year.

You think I’d just dive into his next recommendation,  wouldn’t you? But nooooooo! Ever the pessimist, I argued to myself that one happy result is good, but trying for two is pushing things. So I did nothing.

So, earlier this year, I finally decided - why? I don't know - to give Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins a shot, and, of course, it’s wonderful.

But here’s where it got weird.  I didn’t even wait to find out if it was wonderful before I decided I’d also get a solo album by Jon Hopkins! It was a pretty well-regarded record and all, but there are a lot of those, so why take the chance? Perhaps it was an act of penance for not going right to Diamond Mine when Nutboy first recommended it.

So two may be pushing it, but sometimes what you need to do is push.

Jon Hopkins.jpg

Jon Hopkins: Immunity (2013)

It turns out that Jon Hopkins on his own is markedly different from what he and King Creosote do together. Or so it seems.

It’s hard to hear on first listen how this and Diamond Mine have the same person on it, in whatever capacity. So I went back to Diamond Mine and began to notice how - although the King’s gentle vocals are out front - what’s holding them up isn’t the expected acoustic guitar or piano, but rather the unexpected synthesizer or found sounds of Jon.

So while Immunity starts out sounding like generic dance/electronica, it gradually grows a soul. And that’s the key to this music. Either it should - below the cold brooding surface - have some humanity, or come up with a damn good argument for not having it. (Aphex Twin, for instance, although I'm not sure I'm convinced.)

On this record that humanity is revealed both over the course of each individual track and the album as a whole.

It’s a very worthwhile journey, and one of my favorites of the year. It also works like a charm when you go out for a run, or when you’re trying to do some thinking.

And at the end - surprise! - King Creosote joins Jon for the beautiful send-off. But it would be understandable if you barely noticed him. Like Jon Hopkins on Diamond Mine, he’s in the background.

But he adds the crucial detail - a human voice.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Blackstar 5: Going Deep and Wide

What I most admire about hip hop are the lyrics, which when good, are sharp, tight, imaginative and, when needed, funny as hell. And the sound effects can be very cool, too. But what can be forbidding is the music itself, which is so rhythmically oriented.

For me, rhythm was never an essential musical element. Oh, I loved things that moved but I’m  a melody guy (thank you, Beatles) and a guitar guy (ditto).

So it was hard to love something that was light on those two elements and heavy on rhythm. Which put hip hop at a disadvantage with me.

But I’m coming around...

My knowledge of the Roots is limited to their impressive appearance in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and Jimmy Fallon’s show, which I rarely watch. But when I do, there they are, playing with - and adding to - whatever musical guest Jimmy throws at them, like Car Seat Headrest, for instance. files them under “Rap”, and, realizing my limits in appreciating that genre, I held back.
But when Amazon offered this for $5, what am I supposed to say?  Jaybee, you’ve been having your fun so far this year. How about a little education? So fine, I said. (I talk to myself a lot.)

And the Roots give me a way in.


Roots: How I Got Over (2010)

The first surprise is how damned catchy this is. The arrangements are tight (in the good sense).  And Questlove, if you didn’t already know, is a great drummer. When he hits the snare. He. Hits. The. Snare!

Which brings me to something else that seems to help. The Roots are a band. Instead of using turntables, they play instruments. Imagine that. It really shouldn’t matter, but it seems to anyway.

And, okay, I’m not hearing many melodies, but the textures (keyboards, and yes, guitars) keep me listening.

Which gets me to the words. And while some speak of defiance, there’s also plenty of doubt, and a desire to do better. It's Aspiration, in the very best sense of the word.

One highlight is “Oh, God 2.0”, which improves upon the Monsters of Folk version.

Another is the totally unexpected inclusion of a Joanna Newsom sample, changing its nature while at the same time adding to the song at hand.

And best of all, the title track with its heartrending lyrics:

Out on the streets
where I grew up,
First thing they teach you 
is not to give a f*ck,
That kind of thinking 
will get you nowhere,
Has To

These, along with several others are the best I’ve heard all year.

So, while Kanye is a brilliant music maker, it’s always about him, and where Kendrick Lamar goes so, so deep, the music isn’t always what I need.

But the Roots - providing nuance, brains, and themes of internal and external struggle - give me hip hop I can really hear and love.

It may be my favorite of the genre.


“How I Got Over”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Short, Sharp Shocks, or Smaller is Better:

As you might recall (no, you don’t. Who’s kidding who? Only I’d recall something like this.) vinyl albums held about forty minutes worth of music. You could fit up to an hour or so, but forty was the average.

So my natural skinflintedness meant that, if for no other reason (other than not having to get up off my ass every 20 minutes to flip it over), I’d love the CD format (about 80 minutes of music per), even if they cost a bit more than vinyl.

Ah, but what if the music is there just to fill up the space? Whereas before artists had to pick and choose only the best of their new songs to fit on vinyl, now they could spread out like those guys sitting on the subway train, with results that could be just as uncomfortable.

So I eventually came to “appreciate” (ie, respect and even enjoy, while still writing to my congressperson about instituting unit pricing on albums) the "short album".

Early rock n’ roll albums were pretty short, mainly because the songs were short. Even twelve of them wouldn’t always hit thirty - let alone forty - minutes.

Songs are just longer now.

Now, if I were to fully embrace my inner (and soon to be outer) grumpy old man and combine it with my natural nerdiness...well, for one thing, I’d end up with one hell of a super-villain.

But I’d also endlessly debate the merits of musical unit-pricing based on songs per dollar vs. minutes per dollar.  I can just see the entire Marvel and DC Universe surrendering to me, on the one condition that I just shut the f*ck up. Now that’s winning, baby!

Anyway, last year’s Puberty 2 by Mitski was pretty short (about 31 minutes) but didn’t feel that way. Not sure if that’s a compliment, but it’s probably because there are eleven songs on it

And this year, I came across a few records that come up short timewise, but not aesthetics-wise.


Cloud Nothings.jpg
The Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory (2012)

Although it only has eight songs that run 33 minutes it feels complete, and even generous. Now that’s intensity!

This foursome plays aggressive-to-harsh electric guitars a la Parquet Courts but change tone often enough - and add melody enough - to keep it all from beating you down.

There’s even a burst of Feelies drone-guitar in the cheerier-than-average “Fall In”.

The mid 20s singer complains a lot, but his gravelly voice sounds old and vaguely threatening, verging on ugly. And when things get out of hand, they careen out of control and crash.

But they pull themselves out of the ditch and start up again, with guitars propelling them along the way.


"Fall In"

The Harsh Mirror:

Death Cab.jpg
Death Cab for Cutie: The Open Door EP (2009)

Damn, I lost focus again and forgot to keep it in the decade!

I have a hard time even saying their name, both for silliness and sheer mechanics. (You try saying it fast.)

And, admittedly it's an EP, not an album. But, like with the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor, just let it go.

I had already gotten a taste of Ben Gibbard’s songwriting from Postal Service. And like on that album, his melodies can seem a bit mechanical, as if he plotted them out on graph paper.

What works for it, though - like the atmospherics of Give Up - is the sturdy rocking band behind him.
So the outcome is a little more organic.

And the lyrics are filled with painful self-examination. Not the physical kind.  That comes later in life, boys!


"My Mirror Speaks"

Sweet (and Weird) and Lovely:

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins: Diamond Mine (2014)

 I’ve only had this for about a week, so I should really wait to digest it, but I just don’t want to.

Nutboy recommended this to me a while ago, but I immediately lost his email.  Well, I finally dug it up, and I'm glad I did.

Sweet, quiet, with odd and everyday sounds mixed in. King Creosote provides the former, with a voice so fragile you think it’s going to shatter. Jon Hopkins, who I will talk about in another post, provides the latter, and helps to keep this from going down too easy. Together, they make a Scottish Neil Young.

But you’d better play it early, before the neighborhood noises start to drown it out. Yes, it's that fragile.

But well worth it.


"Your Own Spell"

Saturday, June 10, 2017

World History Project: Costco Opera House, Part One

As is usual, I’m lying before I even get past the title (run for president, should I?), because it was probably BJs. And come to think of it, “Opera and BJs” makes for a more interesting title. It certainly catches the eye.

Still, it might have been Costco, but I’m remembering being in a big box shopping hell hole with the wife and then child when we came across the CDs and, what the hell, I also saw Morrissey’s Your Arsenal and REMs Automatic for the People, which Sister Mag was just raving about at the time, and well, you can’t beat those prices, can you?

I’ll probably remember it differently next time.

No, it was definitely BJs (maybe), and so even though all of the above probably wasn’t even the same trip, what it was was that I bought a Ten(!) CD set of Opera Highlights for ten bucks. That’s one buck per opera! (Notice that I saved you from doing the math.) So the price was right. It was similar to when I joined the Musical Heritage Society back when I was young and open minded, and got an eight record set of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies for fifteen bucks. (Always buy your classical music in bulk, I say!)

Actually, I’m suspicious of anything that you can easily purchase in such quantity, but in this case it wouldn’t go bad like that 50 lb. bag of potatoes we thought we would actually cook, or those twin economy boxes of Saran Wrap that I bought when I thought we were running out. (Of course, we weren’t. We were actually running out of tin foil! But that’s another crisis for another post.) Instead, we had a lifetime’s worth of Saran Wrap. And I mean that literally because although it was at least twenty years ago we still haven’t run out.

So I listened to them all ten of them once and then put them away for a very long time. Longer than the potatoes. Every once in awhile they’d come out again, but they never made it to heavy rotation.

But I'm going through the World History Project right now so why not give them a re-listen?

I’m currently stuck in the 1760s, where I’m trying to read, among other things, the Chernow biographies of Washington and Hamilton, and Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, so I’ll be there for a while. I may never get to Costco again...

Which brings me to:

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)

Not the whole thing, mind you, but good hour’s worth. Remember, it’s Highlights.

So I’ve listened to this dozens of times while I wait to get to to the Revolutionary War.

And it’s pretty good! A nice ratio of singing and playing. And the singing isn’t too melodramatic. In other words, not every operatic, which suits me just fine.

You don’t get that feeling that you’re watching it on PBS on a boring Sunday afternoon, waiting for something to happen, and then when it does happen, you wished it would stop.

I put it on before reading in bed (hence the dozens of times), and still wouldn’t be positive I’d recognize it in any other context.

But it doesn’t cause me to scream and go running for another viewing of Black Orpheus.

So, overall, you could do a lot worse than this one, and I swear if they ever do it at the Met again, I'll go.

But in the meantime, I'll see you Costco. I’ll be the angry one.



Saturday, May 6, 2017

Blackstar 4: Five Hundred Miles(es)

Remember how I said it’s sad to go through the $3.99 mp3 pages? Well, it’s not always Sad sad. It’s just you spend a lot of time (400 pages worth) going through what looks to be pretty awful stuff before you stumble upon a gem. And you (and I) may not have that kind of time. Let’s agree to not do it when it’s sunny out, okay?

So, one dark and stormy night I found myself there and what do I do? I let myself get further distracted from the current decade, and, like someone who stumbled into The Time Tunnel, find myself back in 1969.


Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974

Miles Davis was the Kanye West of his time. A genius, and egotist, who delighted in outraging white people, at a time when that was even more dangerous to do than it is now. Actually, Kanye seems a little nicer.

But there are many Mileses (Miless? Miles's?). There’s post-World War II trumpeter with Charlie Parker, who, frankly, had a hard time keeping up. The band leader for Birth of the Cool. The heroin addict who cleaned himself up before going onto his truly great achievements, like Kind of Blue (my favorite, but so what? That’s everybody’s favorite.) Oh, and he managed to fit in being the leader of at least two of the all-time great jazz small combos.

But as time went on, he was getting a little tired of toiling in relative obscurity - critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills you see - and seeing rock n roll stars hitting it big, he began to change his music yet again.

First, there was In A Silent Way, which is a perfectly lovely and accessible, if not overpowering, mood record. And to a lot of jazz fans, maybe not jazz at all.

But if they thought that wasn’t jazz, they were in for greater outrage, because he then moved on to Bitch’s Brew, the highly-regarded - and highly controversial - jazz fusion classic.

My favorite from that period is Jack Johnson, which came right after Bitches. It has all of Bitch's thrills in half the time.

And he’d go on throughout the seventies in a genre that was kind of forbidding to me. He was always quite prolific, and he didn’t slow down until 1977, putting out album after album, many of the doubles.  I didn’t even start on Miles until 1980, so there was no way I’d be able to find my way through his catalog. Miles is one of those artists for whom you really need a guide.

But this record is a remix/re-edit of pieces from that era, and frankly, I can’t tell the difference between it and the originals. But it is a tight, condensed version of those sprawling records.

So this is a great starting point. If you like it, then move onto Silent and then maybe Johnson. And then, if you’re feeling dangerous, dive into this era with the original records. Of course, if this era isn’t your bag, then Kind of Blue is the way to go.

But it you decide to come here, and you’re willing to sit back and let it all unfold, you won’t be disappointed.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Blackstar 3: Wonder of the World

Damn you, amazon! You helped me focus me on my goal of catching up with the best music from the current decade with $5 mp3s by Kanye and Kendrick, only to pull me all the way back to the sixties.

Taj Mahal: The Best of… (2000)

But it does lead right back up to the present day since Taj is still out there playing shows.

An artist like Taj Mahal falls somewhere in between blues legends that you’d normally check out first if you wanted to explore that genre, and all the artists you already like in your favorite genre.  In other words, if you don’t know about him already, it might take some time before you check him out.

After all, the last thing I want is to get stuck in a banal genre exercise, especially from several decades ago. But I’m just making excuses because that’s what I did.

Anyway, amazon came to the rescue and gave me a cheap and efficient way of digging in. And I’m glad I did.

He starts out playing songs originally sung in the cotton fields, which might explain why I enjoyed it so much while planting the bulbs in my front yard! (Because those things are practically the same, right?)

So after I pulled my head out of my ass in that regard, I noted that this is where you will find the arrangement of “Statesboro Blues” that the Allmans used on Fillmore East. I love the Brothers but this is nearly a direct lift.

And “Leaving Trunk” has the guitar riff later used on “American Woman”.

If like me, you first heard “Take a Giant Step” done by the Monkees, you might not even recognize it here. His version came afterward, but he makes it all his own.

So in short order, he shot past the blues, and dipped into pop on his way to country and reggae, where he does a rocking “Six Days on the Road”, and a mournful “Johnny Too Bad”. And he keeps going from there.

The theme that runs consistently throughout this best-of is how Taj puts his personal stamp on songs both old and new.

So my fears of that banal genre exercise were completely unfounded, as we go from one wonderful song to another.

If you’re still not convinced, check out his funky “Oh, Susannah”, which says it all.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Blackstar 2: Kendrick Lamar Doesn’t Care If I Like It Or Not

So I guess I was lying about dinner with Kanye, but facts don’t matter anymore, so sue me.

It’s usually after dinner when the amazon $5 mp3s strike. They say don’t go food shopping while you’re hungry. I shouldn’t go music shopping when I’m full. It gives me too much endurance. Like Superman, I could climb tall record-store racks in a single bound. So paging through a few dozen pages worth of amazon mp3s is a snap. (But my advice is to stick to the $5 ones, the $3.99 ones - 400 pages worth - are a little sad, even for me.)

But it does give me more opportunities to catch up on this decade. It’s where I found an artist whose record will definitely show up on a lot of Best of the Decade lists.

And he’s already released a couple of new ones! So here I am, as usual, one record behind.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

“Be honest. Do you really enjoy that album?” Mrs. Jaybee asked me today

It’s a fair question. Hip-hop isn’t a genre I’d ordinarily gravitate to. Plus, she must have found it funny to watch a sixty-year-old white guy listening to this.

So we both went through the album, rating each song from ick/meh/pretty good/great. And I showed her that my overall answer to her question was a guarded, but definite, Yes.

Not that Kendrick Lamar is losing any sleep over this. He’s got more important things on his mind.

But I’ll do my best to say why, with some half-assed observations based on my limited knowledge. I’ll use Kanye (as a crutch) for comparison purposes.

Like Kanye, when he bothers to meet me halfway, I enjoy it the most. I could swear he’s sampling Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” on “These Walls”, but can’t prove it. (It’s really “Hit the Quan” by Iheartmemphis.)

And my oh my, what a cool piano on “What a Dollar Cost”!

And where Kanye’s always talking about himself, Kendrick, in talking about himself, is really talking about an entire community. So while any of us can have a good laugh over Kanye bragging or feuding with someone, For Kendrick, the stakes are just too high.

And while I enjoy the parts less where he doesn’t meet me halfway, there’s no doubt that it’s my problem. The samples he uses are almost uniformly unknown to me, which puts into greater relief how African American culture is doing just fine without me, f*ck you very much.

And as difficult and painful as the story is, by the time you get to “i” (sampling the Isley’s “Who’s that Lady?”) the joy is real and well-earned.

So while Kendrick isn’t as funny as Kanye he’s also less of an egomaniac.

And where Kanye uses rock n' roll on Fantasy as an obvious crossover move, Lamar gracefully deploys jazz because he likes it.

Kanye’s first album ends with a 12-minute monolog about getting a record deal, this one ends with a 12-minute meditation on what it means to be an African-American man in America. (Kanye tries to do this on Fantasy, but could only come up with a dated and sexist Gil Scott-Heron poem.

So I give the edge to Kanye on sheer entertainment value, Kendrick gives me much more to think about.

I don’t get all of this, by any means, but that’s on me.