Saturday, November 26, 2016

More Music for Catastrophes, or, Heart of Glass:

Friend-at-Work-Andrew and I talk a lot about music. It sure beats talking about work.

We have a lot of common interests, and when I told him about my delving into classical music via my World History Project, and Bach in particular, he pointed me in a couple of very fruitful directions.

But my favorite of his recommendations is more contemporary.

Like Phillip Glass, by way of our common admiration for Brian Eno. I’d already gone down the contemporary classical path with Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

Glass never had the obvious record to buy, other than the triple record Einstein at the Beach, which I was - of course - too cheap to try.

So Andrew pointed me to this record one instead:


Glassworks.jpg
Philip Glass: Glassworks (Expanded Edition) (1981)

One of the reasons I kept putting off getting something by Philip Glass is that the description adjectives I’ve read of his music were complimentary but alienating: repetitive/rhythmic/minimalistic. These are not the words that typically trigger my interest. I’m more of an emotional/melodic/joyful/suicide inducing kind of guy.

So, in finally relenting, I braced myself for something academic and dry, but instead got a very emotionally charged record.  Son Michael - a rock n' roller asked "What’s this?" while the very first song played.

We then go back and forth between what you’d expect based on the dry compliments above to unexpectedly lovely interludes.

By itself, I’d judge Glassworks about a B+, but what really puts it over in this expanded edition is the inclusion of selected cuts from In the Upper Room - a dance piece he did with Twyla Tharp back in 1983(?) - which turn out to be just as good as - and sometimes even better than - Glassworks itself.

And by “Dance II” we are taking off! And here is where I begin to notice that Glass isn’t above using pop-like minor chord changes, just enough to keep idiots like me focused.

So not only do I get to feel superior to people by listening to this kinda highbrow stuff, I get to actually enjoy it too!

And “Opening” is the perfect solace for these trying times.

A-

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Music For Catastrophes

Whenever I’m severely depressed, or dealing with some sort of “Major Negative Issue” I would avoid new music, fearing that it would just get the stench of the crisis and forever be tainted by it. I’d use similar logic to deprive myself of other fun things during those times, but now I’m beginning to think that approach only made things worse. This time around, I’ll do good things for myself to keep up my strength, and one of those things will be to listen to good music. Another rule worth breaking now is my No More Than One CD by an Artist rule. Which is, when given the choice between two records to buy, I’d get the one by the band I didn’t have anything by yet. Its original intent was to cut down on those instances where I’m getting the eighth or twelfth record by one artist at the expense of hearing something new by another. After all, unless you’re Dylan or Neil Young, there’s little reason to think your twelfth record is as good as your first. But everyone once in awhile, I wise up and ask myself why I never bothered to go back to the well for a band that made a record I loved? Which brings me to the Chills, who made one of my all time favorite records, Submarine Bells (1990), which was definitely one of the best records of the 90s. Chills.jpg The Chills: Kaleidoscope World (1986) This time it’s their first album (Submarine Bells was their second) which is really a collection of singles. Now I know what you’re thinking. I’ve never even heard of these guys. Well, like the Clean before them, they’re from New Zealand. Most of the key characteristics of the band are here, if in more embryonic form. The songs with rhythms or melodies like old sea shanties, but modernized via echoey organ and guitar textures that provide a haunting, out of reach quality. Their music hasn’t yet taken on the bright sharp production of SB, but if anything, it’s even more haunting for that reason. The songs are as melodic as ever, but this time they sound both modern and mythic at the same time. Martin Phillips’ vocals may seem nondescript but they fit the mood perfectly, only adding to the overall atmosphere. The lyrics deal with major themes like death and love and leather jackets, so you know they’ve got their priorities straight. And they’re just vague enough to keep me intrigued. Somehow they manage to rock out more, too. And the good news is that they’re pretty good at it. The brilliance is not yet in full focus but it’s here nonetheless. So, while I’d recommend SB first, if you like that one, proceed on to this one. You won’t be sorry. I hope the music here will help me through some of this awful time. As far as getting the stench of the time on it, only time will tell. A- “Rolling Moon”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

World History Project: Vivaldi vs. Handel vs. Bach, Round Two!

One thing I keep forgetting to mention about my World History Project (where I’m currently reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, circa 1747)  is how it gives me an opportunity to fill in the huge gaps in my classical music collection.

God, I hate that word “collection”! It conjures visions of shelves full of records no one ever listens to. Maybe I should just say that it gives me a chance to hear stuff I haven’t heard before.

One common complaint about classical music is that “all that sh*t sounds the same”. I get that.

Another is that it’s too damned fussy. I get that too, and I agree. I like it best when they all just calm the f*ck down and play a pretty tune.

Plus, I think of it as music for rich people.

I said last time that I’d like to punch the guy wearing the wig and funny clothes who plays the harpsichord (or the horn or the violin, although they always seem to be wearing a tux and just waiting for someone to give them a wedgie) when he does those little flourishes at the end of a tune. It’s like he’s holding a tea cup with his pinkie sticking out. And who doesn’t want to just snap that little pinkie off?

Whew! I’m glad I got all of that out of my system.

So I took the occasion to get two new records from a couple of guys we’ve run into before, and listen more closely to one record I’ve had for some time.

And I judge them partly by whether they sound the same, and whether they’re too damned fussy and whether I feel I have to check my credit score before listening to them, which is what the theme from Masterpiece Theater sounds like.

Call it the Punch In the Face Index (PFI), or Break That Pinkie Off Index (BPI). Or Burn Their Mansion Down Index (BMI). Up to you.

Each record occasionally falls into the above-mentioned traps but one blows right past them.


Handel Water Music.jpg
Handel: Water Music (1717)

Here’s some more music from that guy we first met here and then again here.

This is orchestrated much like the Masterpiece theme, but maybe a little happier/peppier (which ain’t sayin’ much, btw.)

The instrument I hear the most here is the french horn. It’s kind of stately but not too overbearing. It’s got a kind of waltz-y beat going on, which keeps it from getting boring (but then again, you won’t be dancing to it). It won’t quite grab your heart, though. It’s like that couple that come to your barbecue all dressed up.

However, I put it on in the backyard on a beautiful October day and it was just wonderful. Turns out it was composed for a festival that took place next to the River Thames.  (Notice how they don’t call it the Thames River? If they hear you say that, they assume you’re making minimum wage.)

So it turns out it’s not for a summer barbecue but rather a fall walk in the park, preferably one with a body of water that you name backwards, like River Hudson or Lake Clove.

Based on an outside listen, this is an easy A-, assuming the weather’s good and it’s the right time of year.

But I’m an indoor kind of guy.

So, not great, but not bad at all.

B+


Vivaldi Four Seasons.jpg
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (1723)

And not to be outdone, Vivaldi comes back, too.

And we’ve all heard the opening theme, right? I forget where, though. Some ads, I think.  Charmin? Camel Cigarettes? Yeah, that sounds right.

It’s also got that Masterpiece Theater vibe but manages to keep it all a bit lighter. I find it more varied than Water Music. There are some slow ones, some fast ones (Handel never really quite revs up to, say, “Wipe Out” speed. That’s okay. No waves by the Thames.)

And there are more violins than horns, which I prefer. And the slow quiet parts are real pretty.

Again, you won’t lost your sh*t listening to this, but it’ll make the time go by quite pleasantly.

B+


Bach Brandenburg.jpg
Bach: The  Brandenberg Concertos (1721)

This is the record I bought back in the summer of 1983 when I took another shot at classical music at exactly the wrong time.  Poor Johann Sebastian was up against a summertime glut of pop music that was making me perfectly happy at the time thank you very much.

But now, over thirty years later, I can hear it much better.

Compared against Vivaldi and Handel, Bach comes as a bit of a relief. He’s lighter on his feet, more melodic, more relaxed, and not trying to impress you like the other two guys.

I mean, he already impressed me with the sheer gall of his Six Solo Cello Suites. I mean, who does that?  Well apparently a few people, but whatever.

Here he knocks out six concertos for this guy Brandenburg, in about a year and a half. And it’s everything Vivaldi and Handel ain’t. And those guys are pretty good!

I also notice that he keeps the band a little smaller. You could almost fit them in your living room. Okay, maybe not quite.

Funny thing. Turns out that you’ll find the 2nd Concerto, Third Movement used as the theme for "Firing Line". At the time, I always found it to be the epitome of fussiness, and yet when heard in the context of all six of these pieces, it goes down a lot easier.

So, if I were to give an analogy, Vivaldi and Handel are Chuck Berry and Elvis, while Bach is the Beatles. And with all due respect to the other gentlemen, I’m a Beatles Guy all the way.

A-

Saturday, October 8, 2016

My 70s Show, Part Two

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring and revisiting the early 1970s. I turned thirteen in 1970 and feel like I missed a lot of what was going on at the time.

Alas, 1970 was also the first year of “I Wish Things Were As Good As They Were in the Sixties”. After all, we were aware of “the sixties” as a concept even during the sixties themselves. So, along comes 1970, and what could possibly send you the message that the sixties were not only literally over, but also symbolically over than the news that the Beatles broke up?

The only thing that made the summer of 1970 bearable was the Woodstock Soundtrack. But everyone wondered what was next, and had the troubling feeling it couldn’t possibly be as good. Except for the Led Zeppelin fans, who already thought they were better than the Beatles. )I swear. Ask my childhood friends Joe and Mike.)

The trouble was if you just assumed things were going to be bad you were bound to miss a lot. And a problem with the sixties was that you could point to five or ten key artists who made 75% of the great records. With the seventies, the quality was more evenly spread, which made it harder to find, let alone agree on.

So it was no wonder we started breaking up into our little groups of taste like glam, Southern rock, singer-songwriter, heavy metal, etc. And black artists? Forget about it. They were exiled to AM radio.

And yet, there are probably a lot more great albums made in the seventies than the sixties, at least if you leave out jazz.  Let’s face it, good pop albums didn’t really start getting made until 1964, and then only by the Beatles, Stones and Dylan. Everyone else didn’t get into the swing of things until about 1966, which may be my all time favorite year for music (67-69 wasn’t too shabby, either, as I recall).

By 1974, I knew there were great things out there because by then I had a job, and spent all the money on collecting albums. First, there were the key sixties albums I needed to catch up with, like Blonde on Blonde but mostly it was seventies music. I was no longer looking for the “next Beatles”. I was just looking for good music wherever I could find it.

And now, when I’m feeling I’m not connecting with new music, I can always go back to the sixties and seventies for some relief. The sixties for brilliant meteors scraping the summer sky and the seventies for bright and cool autumn sunshine.

And it’s been working out pretty well, with the Kinks, Fairport Convention and Roxy Music. I had some making up to do since it was the British stuff I tended to miss at the time.  But, hey, why not an American artist?












Leon Russell (1970)

You remember Leon, don’t you?

Friends with Joe Cocker, highlight of the Bangla Desh concert, co-writer of “Superstar”, member/leader of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which overlapped with the  Delaney/Bonnie/Clapton nexus that together made about a dozen albums together at the time, including this one.

He was also up to his ass in sixties studio work and the maker of many hit singles in the seventies.

And a great piano player. Elton John was/is a huge fan.

Leon’s got that grating voice and extreme Southern drawl. We all liked it then, but I like it somewhat less now. Ahh, another great thing about the early seventies was that you could get away with a lot. Now as I get closer to my early seventies, not so much.

This is not even his first record, but it’s his first record where he’s billed as the solo artist.

And it boasts some great tunes.  “Delta Lady” (almost as good as the punchier Joe Cocker version), “Humming Bird” (one of my favorites) , “A Song for You” (covered by everybody), “Roll Away the Stone” (quite humorous).

I just wish it boasted more. If it did, I’d rank it amongst the greatest albums of the seventies. Alas. no. Leon could write some great ones but maybe not enough for one full album at any given time.

And the key, with revisiting early seventies albums is getting beyond the better-known cuts and seeing how the rest of the record holds up. And in this Leon is hit or miss. And it’s not that these other songs aren’t good. They’re well executed, but just don’t rise above a generic seventies sound. Except for that organ on “Hummingbird”, which sounds great.

The playing is real tight. And why not? He’s got half the Stones, half the Beatles, and an assortment of rock n roll all-stars helping him out.

But unlike, say, Lola, which boasts several excellent songs I hadn’t heard before, there’s nothing here like that.

So while he probably deserved an A- at the time of release, the years have taken their toll on it.

My recommendation? Look for one of the extensive compilations and catch all of his highlights. If that isn’t enough for you, then come back to this one.

Mind you, I'm not disappointed. "Less than great" comes with the territory. And "pretty damned good" is all over the place.

B+

“Hummingbird”


Saturday, September 24, 2016

World History Project: Every Record Ever Recorded! (Not!)

Just a clarification on this whole World History Project thing. I will not be reading every book ever published or listening to every record ever recorded, because that would involve listening to Barry Manilow.

So I’ll just be reading books as I find them and listening to the records I already have.

And since I’m up to the 18th Century - and believe it or not Keith Richards was not born yet - I’ll be listening to a lot of classical music.

Having grown up in Brooklyn, it’s hard for me to separate the act of listening to classical music from wanting to punch someone in the face. And since I'm usually the punchee, it’s really saying something that I’d be the one to get that urge.

But classical music brings up images of foppish guys with British - or worse, French - accents, wearing flouncy wigs, and not even having the decency to be doing so in drag.

I can just see them sitting around the mansion, enjoying the latest Bach ditty on the family harpsichord, convinced of their superiority over the lower classes who were busy tending the fields and yet invented folk music. Isn’t that enough to make you want to take a swing?

Now that’s not the fault of the music. It’s just something I have a hard time getting out of my head. So I tend to enjoy classical music to the degree that I can forget that.

Anyway, back to the World History Project. I’m up to 1714, and reading myself some Alexander Pope. (Hey, Jeeves! Where’s my flouncy wig!) Now Pope isn’t as much fun as Neal Stephenson, but he’s not bad.

One of the records I’m listening to from that time is a Musical Heritage Society compilation of work by Vivaldi, Handel and Telemann by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.



I’ve had no luck finding this record at allmusic.com, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to recommend the album, but I guess I can tell you what I think of each piece.


Handel, Concerto Grosso in G Major  Opus 6, No 1.:

I know what you’re thinking. If this is Opus 6, what happened to the other five? And are they all in G Major? Wow, if so, how did he ever get to the rest of the alphabet? I guess they didn’t have a lot to do back then.

But maybe Opi (the plural of Opus, of course) 1 - 5 weren’t so hot. But by now it’s all good. And this is number 1. Is that it's highest Billboard position? I can’t wait for the rest!

Anyway, this one’s got a lot of violin in it, which I like a lot. Slow and stately, yet melodic and sweet.

Check it out!

B+


Handel, Concerto in A Minor Opus 6, No.4:

And now I’m all confused again. Is this a whole other Opus 6 or are we in the same Opus as last time? Who knows?  I mean, why not just call them Meet the Handels, A Handel’s Day Night, Magical Handel Tour, etc. I mean, we could all get a better - wait for it! - “Handel” on it!  (I just kill me!)

And what’s with the grosso? Hey guys, I just wrote a concerto and it’s kinda gross. Take a listen! It’s like when I barbecue and tell everyone that the food probably didn’t come out that good. Bon appetit!

This one’s a little quieter and the first part, the larghetto afffettuoso allegro (of course) is really very pretty. Slow and sad.

Just like me. 

B+


Vivaldi, Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins Op 3 No 10:

Four violins? Really?

You didn’t see old Ronnie Van Zandt call “Free Bird” Concerto for Three Lead Guitars Opus Awesome No.79, now did you ?  C'mon classical people, get a grip! Well, I guess I'm a little late with that, huh?

Anyway, you can kind of tell it’s Vivaldi. He’s got that stench of Masterpiece Theater on him, but he’s actually pretty cool. The violins stay pretty without getting too, you know, “no fun”. He changes the pace and gets a nice balance of sweet and serious.

Give it a whirl.

B+


Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Trumpets:

This one is soooo Masterpiece Theater it’s not easy to like. And I just can’t.

The trumpets remind me of those old Roman movies when whenever someone entered the castle a bunch of trumpets would play something to announce his arrival, when a doorbell really would have sufficed.

It’s kind of stuffy, and makes you feel like you should be sitting up straight.

All this tooting when all I really need to hear is the french horn from the Tommy “Overture”.

And note, no grosso for old Vivaldi! He’s got a better opinion of himself.

But not me.

Here’ goes.

B-


Telemann, Viola Concerto in G Major:

No Opi for this guy, thank god.

In all of these pieces, I find I like the slower quieter second movements. But Mr. T gets right to the slow part up front.

Violas are at a lower pitch than violins which makes them easier to take over the long haul.

It’s quite pleasant to listen to this piece, which says, hey I’ll just hang out with you and not talk too much. My favorite kind of guest.

But then he can’t help but pick up the pace and get a little loud and fussy. But it’s okay. He can stay for the barbecue.

Hey, Mr. T. Do your thing.

B+


So that’s it for classical music for now. I’ll have to slog through some more Pope, before I get to more Vivaldi and Handel.

But in between, I’ll get back to the apex of Western Civilization: Silly Love Songs and Pop Music.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

More Summer Music!?

But I wasn’t done searching for summer music.

And this record - the very name of it - promised to have exactly what I needed.



The Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder (2007)

And in several individual moments, it delivers. Which only makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn’t do so more consistently.

The title is actually pretty accurate.  Guitar pop, with synths added. Another weird voice that shouldn’t work but does.

So I would like to report that the tunes are so sharp that any quibbles I might have about overproduction or silliness are swept away in a sea of cascading melodies, lush harmonies and deft chord changes, because that’s what my first impression was.

Alas, it’s more complicated than that. Not all of the tunes rise to the level made in that first impression.

In a lot of ways this is the polar opposite of the Go! Team. That record was tuneful but rough, spontaneous and lo-fi, with the exuberance of youth throughout. This one is tuneful but slick, detailed and produced to a within an inch of its life, with the calculation of of a pop professional throughout.

That’s not exactly a criticism. After all, there are about six excellent and four great pop/rock tunes here. The problem is that they are surrounded by short musical interludes of varying quality, and are suffused with synths and voices channeled through said synths.  The treated vocals remind me of Trans, which is okay, but I’ve already got Trans.

It’s like they’re aiming for a masterpiece and give every single detail way too much attention, when just a couple of more great songs would have done the trick. That’s okay. A lot of records are like that.

Interestingly enough, mastermind Robert Schneider’s high, nasally voice - which sounds like he’s singing to you through a phone line - is not the problem.  The tunes are written with such cunning that they actually take advantage of said voice. The vague sci-fi surroundings help in that regard as well.  

We start off with two very bright and energetic rock oriented cuts, which are so well performed it takes you time to notice they’re not quite great.

But then we get to “Energy” and we’re suddenly on another level. You realize how melodic a songwriter Schneider can be. It ranks with some of the best pop of last decade. But then after several more good but not great songs, as pleasant as it’s been so far, “Energy” is the only one I love.

Don’t get me wrong, I love parts of all the other songs; the guitar part of “Play Tough”, the melody of “The Sunndal Song”, the lo-fi singing on “Sun Is Out”, the grandeur of “Open Eyes”. I could go on. And they do get stuck in my head, too. But not in the love-obsession way, more in the good-but-distracting way.

They score more often during the second half, with high points like “7 Stars”, “Radiation” and "Beautiful Machine, 1-2". It’s a shame we keep hitting minor bumps along the way that slow down the momentum.

So it’s fantastic in spots, frustrating in others. In a way, it reminds me of Badly Drawn Boy’s Hour of the Bewilderbeast, which via more consistent songwriting and less kitchen sink, is more successful.

And, not to be too unkind in the comparison, it's like the difference between the Beatles and ELO.

But if you put it on at a party, your guests may think it’s a great album. I just don’t know what they’re going to think the next day.

Still, having said all this, that party will be lots of fun.

A-

"7 Stars"

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Summer Music!

I use the colder months to explore and go deep into other genres like jazz or classical. I’m usually kind of depressed anyway, so happy music would only taunt me.

When the weather warms up my musical (and mental, hopefully) habits change, too. My energy level increases and I start to look for rock n’ roll and pop music. Something energetic, joyful. Call it Spring or Summer music.

Such music is harder to find than one might think. One person’s “Happy” music is idiotic to another.  One person’s “pop” is another’s mindless commercial junk.
One’s joyful music is another’s sappy garbage.

Can you guess who the “another” is in this analogy?

But everyone once in awhile I’m the “one person”, and I live for those instances.

Anyhow, I realized, as I stated in the prior post a "masterpiece" probably wouldn’t fit the bill, and so went looking for something of note, but maybe not something held in awe by anyone.

There may be thousands of records released every year, but once you put them through the Jaybee strainer you’re lucky if end up with even a handful to seriously consider. It was encouraging to hit upon That Petrol Emotion, and a downright pleasure to find the Go! Team, who have made my Summer Album.



The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2004)

There is the quiet and pretty summer music that helps you beat the heat, like Beck's Morning Phase, and then there’s the fast loud summer music that allows you to revel in it.

This is the latter.

Now here is a group of young people - of both genders and several races - who make me almost happy to be alive.

And their debut album screams “Youth!”, even when it’s borrowings sound kind of old. And youth in the best sense. Like when you see a group of young people having a good time, and instead of wanting to call the cops, you raise your glass.

The end product is at least partially - and perhaps mostly - samples of other records. (If that sounds unpromising, you might want to check out DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…  which is comprised exclusively of samples and is, by the way, a masterpiece, and one of the great records of the 90s.)

Anyway, the samples are “borrowed” from all over. (I believe some legal action may have been taken to ensure everyone got their royalty check.) Yet, I’m ashamed to say, I barely recognize any of them.
Which makes it hard for me to tell where the samples leave off and the direct contributions of the band members begin.

But, I. Don’t. Care.

Because they manage to concoct a perfect blend of rock n’ roll, hip-hop, soul and pop on nearly every track. Hear a part you’re not crazy about? Just stick around a few seconds and another part will bring you right back. Don’t like that hip hop intro? Hold on, and the electric guitars will kick in shortly.

I admit the sixties style horns (a la “Hawaii Five-O” and Motown) can get a bit cheesy, but who doesn’t like cheese? Plus, it gives me pleasure to know that these young folks enjoy that music, too.

And to hear it mixed in - successfully!, in “Bottle Rocket” - with a young woman rapping, a young man playing - of all things - harmonica, soul guitar fills, and another young woman singing 2,4,6,8,10!, is damn near exhilarating.

And I almost wish I was the guy playing bass throughout.

I can imagine another person hating this music, either on principle alone or in actual practice. (Mrs. Jaybee does occasionally ask “Sooooo, what is this?”, and not in the good way.)

But I guess one person’s timeless music may be another person’s horror, but I’m definitely the “one person” this time around.

Thunder Lightning Strike! is fast, loud and most of all, joyful. Which is what I’m in this for.

A rare instance when youth is NOT wasted on the young.

A-
“Bottle Rocket”