Saturday, October 14, 2017

So, How Was Your Summer?

I feel like I can still ask this question since it’s f*cking 80 degrees out still.

But let's go back four months, when the Jaybee family did its typical Father’s Day routine by getting Mr. Jaybee a bunch of records.

And Jaybee himself did his best to ensure they would be “summer-y” albums. (The whole thing is stage-managed to within an inch of its life, thanks to wish lists, shopping carts, etc.)

And how did I do? Pretty good, actually. Not everything is as summery as I would have expected but it didn’t keep me from listening.

One of the themes I couldn’t help but notice (as a rule, I'm too dense to notice these things) is that a few of these artists would end up shaking off some of their original weirdness and go on to make better records. I’m usually pretty skeptical of that strategy since it’s usually their weirdness that put them on the map to begin with.

But it worked for Car Seat Headrest, the New Pornographers and Jens Lekman, and I benefited from that happy turn of events.

God, I LOVE being wrong!

Yo La Tengo: Painful (1993)

I’d avoided this one for a while because I assumed the title referred to the extreme guitar noise that Ira Kaplan is inclined toward. But on this one, he holds back a bit on that, and only lets loose during the climax.

Instead, YLT dig deep into that 60s garage rock sound. So the melodies and classic chord structures don’t seem very original but when you’re mining such a rich vein, it’s got its nostalgic pleasures.  Ira Kaplan’s got a brilliant 1960s songwriter in him, or at least one tied up in his basement.

On the other hand, there are themes here that I’ve heard on other YLT albums, which makes this one less than essential, which isn’t fair since this one came first.

But such is life. And knowing me, I’ll come to love this is six months.


Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (2017)

My first stab at a current year record. Last time I checked out this guy, he was doing his best to imitate a tacky overwrought 60s lounge singer, and succeeded! To a point.

Here he tones down the melodrama a bit, and sticks to very straightforward, almost inevitable melodies. There’s still a deceptively bland style, but the lyrics keep me paying attention, and the accompaniment is perfect.

Which means by making those little adjustments, he makes a great record.  So even when he edges toward lounge singer-ness, I’m fine with it.


Future Islands: Singles (2014)

No, not a best of. How could that be? Nobody’s heard of them. They mean the other kind of singles.

I got this one blind. No recommendations other than from those questionable raves on

This is wimpy synth-based dance pop, so I should really hate it. 

Plus, the singer is semi-constipated (is that a thing? Note to self, google it.)  The first listen was one of fascinated horror.

But on the second spin, I began to notice that those synths were just this side of the line dividing tasteful from cheesy.

And the singer isn’t a bad guy. Maybe a bit too dramatic. But his voice beats the hell out of those nasally, choked vocals of Brits like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, who are trying to simulate a feeling, whereas this guy - limitations and all - is actually feeling them.

Turns out they’re from Baltimore!  No, that can’t be right. But it says so right there.

What the heck is going on here? I don’t know, but I like it. (Well, I admire it more than like it, but I like it a hell of a lot.)

The arrangements are melancholy to the point of almost being...soulful. And for some nerdy white boys from Baltimore, that’s saying something.


Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style (2015)

After being completely bowled over by last year’s Teens of Denial, I felt I owed it to frontman Will Toledo to try out his band’s first record.

And while it’s not quite as stunning as TOD, it is, in fits and starts, brilliant. If anything it’s even more melodic. If only he wasn't yelling from inside an airplane hangar... TOD is clearer, more varied and more consistent. The excesses here have to do with the lo-fi sound. It does lend itself to the overall effect. It's just not a long-range career option, but he knew that.

And it does mean he’s going for broke every time.

Another one dipping into the 1960s pool, but going Yo La Tengo one better, because instead of it sounding like fond memories of someone else's music, this is Car Seat Headrest all the way, and a lot of it is indelible.

And to prove it, here is my current nomination for best song of my year:


Product Details
New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017)

Here's another shot at current year music. And it pays off big-time.

I have the NP's first album which is like a kitchen sink rush of sounds and ideas - both weird and exhilarating. It worked great almost all the time, but you would only put it on for special occasions.

Here they damp down the weirdness a bit (ah, that theme again!), and single-mindedly focus on pleasure. The songs are tuneful, the singing is excellent (what do you want when you’ve got Neko Case?) and the playing - especially the drumming - is tight as hell.

So much fun you’ll feel guilty.

Given all the praise I’ve dumped upon a number of other albums this year, it might seem strange that this one gets the only straight “A” so far. It’s a combination of factors. One being consistency - all the songs are really good. Another is that this one is in my favorite genre - melodic pop-rock. Then they’re Neko Case’s voice which is lovely, even if it never quite hits the highs of Fox Confessor. And every time I make out the lyrics above the insistent drumming and ever energetic band, I hear jokes, wordplay and general cleverness, which is something I treasure.

Or maybe it's because I just got back from Canada. Ay!

Let's talk about this autumn sometime next year!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Blackstar 61: Paradoxically

Oh, blogging gods! How can I make this post any different from my last one? There are just too many similarities!

Both posts pertain to music that:
  1. I wasn’t looking for in the first place.
  2. Is performed by an artist from whom I’ve already gotten a ton of stuff.
  3. Is mostly made up of songs I already have . 
  4. … Is, all right, different renditions of those songs. 
  5. Is Jazz, and since it’s summertime, jazz shouldn’t be a priority for me now.
  6. Is on f*cking for $3.99!
And in this case it’s not a single album either, but rather a two-in-one set: one that float by so effortlessly all of the above caveats melt away, and make me dream of putting all of this artist's songs - sometimes six and seven versions of each - into a single playlist, and then sort it alphabetically, so I can hear all six versions one after the other.

I'll have to warn Mrs. Jaybee ahead of time. Even she - has her limits.

Thelonious Monk: 2 Classic Albums

Jazz can be a very tricky and daunting genre to get into. For every masterpiece, there are two or three awkwardly (or cynically) slapped-together compilations to bore or puzzle you. So any album - especially a two-fer - in the $3.99 bin should be viewed upon with suspicion.

Now, I’ve done very well by Monk. There isn’t a single album of his I haven’t liked. But even I had a hard time believing I could get two really good albums for such a low price.

But sometimes, pure, dumb luck wins out. It’s what makes me think the universe errs slightly on the benign side, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So, how did we do? Well, given the stature of the artist in question, I’m going to tackle each album separately.

The Thelonious Monk Orchestra: At Town Hall

I had my doubts about an “orchestra” (actually, in this case, a “tentet”) doing Monk tunes, even with Monk in the band. I’m not a big fan of the bit of Charlie Parker with Strings I know.

But this works great. Familiar tunes are given a sympathetic, but not reverential, treatment. The other nine guys can’t manage to overwhelm Monk - they’re too busy keeping up and flat out admiring him.


Thelonious Monk: In Action

If you’ve never heard Monk before, you may want to start with this one. At least theoretically, fewer musicians should distract you less from the utter weirdness of the tunes.

But here’s the paradox: In my two-fer version, this one starts right up after Town Hall finishes, and you’d think there’d be a drastic change in tone going from ten to four musicians, but no. Monk’s tunes are either impervious, or just plain adaptive-in-the-extreme, to any such trivial matters such as there being four or ten musicians.

Another paradox (and by the way, paradoxes seem to be built into every song): Occasionally, a single musician does make a huge difference. This record comes from the same shows that gave us Misterioso (my favorite Monk album).  And the reason that record is so great is tenor saxophonist Johnny F*cking Griffin, whose contributions here are just as magical as those on Misterioso. (Why wasn’t that guy more famous?)

Anyway, my mere pop/rock brain won’t generate the words to adequately describe this music. Suffice to say, if you’re unfamiliar with Monk, (but are possessed of a pop/rock brain like me) your first reaction will likely be puzzlement.

But, ah, that’s the final paradox! Because his tunes are so strange, they aren’t boxed in by the “sophistication” that keeps a lot of jazz out of reach for you and me. Their very strangeness makes them memorable. And then they reveal their beauty.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Blackstars 6 through 60!, or Christmas in July

I usually reserve summer time for “fun” music, so classical and jazz just have to wait until fall or winter, which would be especially appropriate here, since the concert takes place on Christmas Day.

But when I saw this record on for $3.99 I jumped.

I could very reasonably ask myself if I needed yet another version of “Hot House”, “Ornithology”, “Ko Ko” or “Move”? Is it worth it?

But the answer of any jazz fan is - what, are you kidding me? Hell yeah!

So worth it, in fact, that when I accidentally deleted it from my account, I immediately bought it right back. (Am I really bragging that I spent an extra $3.99?)

So we get a nice chunk of Charlie Parker to start. Add to that vocals by Sarah Vaughn, Bud Powell on piano, Miles Davis on trumpet. Max Roach on drums! Plus Lenny Tristano, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz... I could go on.

I hate to sound like an old geezer, but I just don't think they do concerts like this anymore.

This is bebop, which I’ll roughly equate to punk rock, except it actually required musicianship. Fast, intricate and exhilarating. Just strap in!

Bud Powell starts things off with a bang, outdoing his own The Amazing Bud Powell, and it goes from there.

There isn’t that much more to say about it, really, other than you catch a number of artists in their prime, Parker and Powell, especially. Davis had a few years to go before becoming God, but no matter. This album may have the best lineup of talent of any record I own.

My only reservation is that since it’s a live album from 1949 the sound isn’t great. But on the other hand, the sounds are magnificent!


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.