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52 Albums, Week 52: The Weavers At Carnegie Hall

Sometime in the early 2000s I went in the library and I ran across a CD of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I don't know why I checked it out; maybe because it had Pete Seeger name on it and I always liked his voice and music. When I got home I played it straight through. It was undoubtedly the most purely enjoyable CD I had ever heard. The Weavers had a joyful and relaxed playful spirit about them and the songs were all ones I like or instantly learn to like.*

 The Weavers’ good musicianship was a delight. My favorite cut is “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” It has the perfect blend of joy and trials that characterize a good marriage.**

 

 I like Seeger’s non-bluegrass banjo, as featured on “Darling Corey.

 

 They also had good humor. There was a running gag throughout the show on the words to “Greensleeves”. There were also some more serious songs, like “Sixteen Tons”. In fact the album gets more serious as it proceeds.

 The voices are not that great, except Seegers. Ronnier Gilbert’s alto is too harsh and Lee Hayes’s baritone sounds like he has something in his throat. My least favorite song is the last one, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”; It is musically pretty flat.

 There is a lot of controversy from all sides surrounding the Weavers, especially Seeger. Seeger was a communist who early on distanced himself from Stalin and Soviet communism, but his reputation lingered. Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was unable to perform on national television until a 1968 Smothers Brothers broadcast.

 The Weavers have also been criticized for lifting “Wimoweh” from the South African singer Solomon Linda’s “Mbube” without sufficient compensation.

 Linda’s version: 

 Weaver’s version (“Wimoweh”): 

Then there was the question of authenticity, commercialization, and exploitation. They certainly popularized the American folk tradition for a broad audience. This concert and the recording of it may have been on of the most important events precipitating the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 60s, paving the way for a Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peter Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Smothers Brothers, and Bob Dylan, whom Seeger strongly promoted early on.

Here is a closing shot: “Pay Me My Money Down”:

 *My tastes tend more in the direction of pop than most of those who contribute to this series. First of all, I'm not as interested in the lyrics, although they sure don’t hurt. Nor is “authenticity” particularly important category, since I don’t really understand the boundary. My criteria are melody, harmony, arrangement, complexity and theme. A really good voice doesn’t hurt, either. Which makes it odd, I suppose, that I'm a big fan of those Neil Young albums. I’m also a hopeless romantic.

 **Not all the videos in this review are from the concert at Carnegie Hall because there aren’t very many on Youtube. The original song order from the 1955 recording, if you can find it, is much better than the strange playlist on Spotify, which seems to be In a random order. Or perhaps the Spotify list is in the order in which the songs were actually played. I made my own playlist on Spotify,

 1. "Darling Corey" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:58

2. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 3:14
3. "Pay Me My Money Down" (Parrish) — 2:36

4. "Greensleeves" (Traditional) — 2:39

5. "Rock Island Line" (Lead Belly) — 2:19

6. "Around the World" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:37

7. "Wimoweh" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:46

8. "Venga Jaleo" (Brooks) — 2:09

9. "Suliram (I'll Be There)" (Campbell, Engvick) — 2:05

10. "Shalom Chaverim" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:02

11. "Lonesome Traveler" (Hays) — 1:59

12. "I Know Where I'm Going" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:51

13. "Woody's Rag/900 Miles" (Woody Guthrie) — 1:34

14. "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis) — 2:03

15. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman ...) — 2:09

16. "When the Saints Go Marching In" (Traditional) 2:15

17. "I've Got a Home in That Rock" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:48

18. "Hush Little Baby" (Campbell) — 1:03

19. "Go Where I Send Thee (One for the Little Bitty Baby)" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:35

20. "Sylvie" (Lead Belly, Lomax)

21. "Goodnight, Irene" (Lead Belly, Lomax) — 4:02

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.


52 Albums, Week 51: Takk... (Sigur Rós)

Takk

I first heard Sigur Ros around the year 2000, but at the time I wasn’t much taken with them and they fell off my musical radar until I unknowingly heard them again in 2008. I had watched the movie Breaking and Entering and was struck by the song that played over the closing credits. As it turned out, it was their song “Se lest,” and I traced it to their 2005 album Takk. Around this very same time a friend who was visiting England saw the video for “Glosoli” in some sort of church service or religious gathering. When I emailed him to tell him about Takk… he responded by saying he had been planning to write me about “Glosoli” in his next email. Not long after that I watched the documentary/concert film Heima, and it’s that, really, that turned me into a fan.

This album then is near the top of my all-time favorites list, being my favorite release from one of my favorite groups. Most of the songs are in the band’s native Icelandic, although their made-up language “Hopelandic” appears here and there, and is featured on three of the album’s tracks. Musically the album does a lot with time signature variations, which makes it somewhat more interesting rhythmically than your typical rock album, even if most of the tempi are on the slow side. There’s only one song I don’t really care for, and even that one I don’t think of as bad, just so-so.

Takk… opens with the title track, a two-minute long ambient introduction leading directly into “Glosoli,” the video of which Mac has posted here a number of times. Following that is probably the album’s best known song, “Hoppipolla” (“Hopping in Puddles”), which has been used in several films and TV shows and reached the Top 25 on the UK charts. It’s the most accessible, “radio-friendly” track on the album and like “Glosoli” has a great video:

For “Se lest” (“I See a Train”) the song that prompted me to buy the album, I’m including the live version from the Heima film. I love the shots of the audience, especially the children, and the use of the local marching band for the horn section is a neat thing. Heima is full of beautiful footage of Iceland, like the shots that appear in the video. By the way, the word written on paper as the song begins is the name of the town where that particular song was filmed. The band had done free unannounced concerts all over Iceland, and the film documents the various towns in which the performances occurred.

“Saeglopur” (“Lost at Sea”) was another popular track from the album, also used in movies and on TV, perhaps most prominently in a video game ad for “Prince of Persia.” This one starts quietly, but like “Glosoli” turns a good bit noisier a couple minutes in.

For me the highlight of the second half of the album is the soft and lovely “Andvari” (“Zephyr”), which ends with a breathtaking section featuring the strings continuing to play by themselves after the band has faded out. It’s my favorite string arrangement in all of pop music, with the unusual time signature adding to, rather than distracting from, the peaceful beauty of it all.

The album ends with another quiet song, “Heysatan” (“The Haystack”), mostly voice and piano, a very fitting way to close the album.

I don’t want to get rhapsodic about how much I like this record, so I’ll just say that what I find most attractive is the combining of strong melody with sheer power. I’ve always liked bands that were able to pull that off (Chameleons, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive) and I think that Sigur Ros may be the epitome of that. Listen to Takk… or watch Heima and I think you’ll see what I mean.

--Rob Grano


52 Albums, Week 50: Joshua Judges Ruth (Lyle Lovett)

Joshua Judges Ruth_html_caf20e30fff094e5

Sometimes music feels like the soundtrack to your life. I have been avidly listening to Lyle Lovett since the release of his third album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Also since that time, I have seen him in concert as much as has been possible without traveling a long distance. I managed to make each of my wives and my parents converts to the Lyle Lovett cause. That cause is simply music played brilliantly, being a classically cool performer, with quirky songs that cross many genres of musical style. David Bowie was the musical hero of my youth; Lyle Lovett has filled that role in my adulthood.

Joshua Judges Ruth was released in 1992, and typing that makes me wonder in a vague sort of way where I was in life twenty-five years ago, besides just geographically and employment-wise. Having purchased the aforementioned previous album I of course also bought this one and recall being more entranced with it than its predecessor. I guess the “where I was in life” comment goes back to my first sentence about music being a soundtrack to your life. How is it that at whatever age I was then I was so taken by Lyle Lovett’s music?

The first time I saw him on tour must have been in support of this album, so the set list was heavily filled with its songs. If you have ever seen him in concert then you know that Lovett has a knack for between song banter; he is quite funny, and at least it seems that most of what he says is spontaneous. After (or, maybe before) singing the opening track, “I’ve Been to Memphis”, he explained to us that the refrain had nothing to do with any part of a woman’s anatomy. It goes:

Sherry she had big ones
Sally had some too
But Allison had little ones
What hate to go to school

This is a good example of how Lovett likes to do amusing things with lyrics to catch the listener off guard.

“Church” is the second track, and is the only song that Lovett seems to play at every single live show; at least all of the fifteen or so shows I have attended. It is an amusing story about attending a church service where the preacher goes on and on, not allowing anyone to leave. The album version has what sounds like a full gospel choir, so I enjoy it in concert when he has many back-up singers with him, and not as much if it is only he and the band. It is a fun song, and along with the opening and closing tracks, one of only three upbeat songs on the album. That does not sound like a ringing endorsement (lack of upbeat tracks), but these songs are so good, so well played by the musicians, and so meticulously sung by Lyle Lovett that I really feel Joshua Judges Ruth is the high mark in his catalog, more so than even Pontiac, his second and very highly regarded album.

“North Dakota” may be my all-time favorite LL song. It is just lovely, with backing vocals by Rickie Lee Jones, and tells us about cowboys in Texas and in North Dakota. I am always very happy when he plays it in concert. Here is a video of the album version:

“She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”, “You’ve Been So Good Up To Now”, “All My Love Is Gone”, and “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To” all fall in the realm of man who has been wronged to some extent by a woman and is now unhappy. The last one does at least give us a little LL humor with its title. The first time I heard him play it in concert he introduced it as being “about the happiest woman in the world, my ex-girlfriend”. The older I get the more these songs kind of make me sad, but in an appreciation of art melancholy kind of way.

“Since The Last Time” and “Family Reserve” are exceptionally well-written and interesting songs about death. The first is rather long with a lot of set-up to eventually lead you towards the surprise ending, which is that the singer is the person dead and in the coffin at the funeral described:

I went to a funeral
Lord it made me happy
Seeing all those people
I ain’t seen
Since the last time
Somebody died

While “Family Reserve” describes how we never really lose our loved ones because they live on in our memories:

And we’re all gonna be here forever
So mama, don’t you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

My own “family reserve” seems to be getting smaller and smaller, and listening to this song recently made me tear up a little. Again, there is humor abounding within a song with such a morbid theme.

Despite all of this sadness, loss, and melancholy LL chooses to end Joshua Judges Ruth on an upbeat and funny note with “She Makes Me Feel Good”. He has found love again, if perhaps not with quite the right girl:

She’s got big red lips
She’s got big brown eyes
When she treats me right
It’s a big surprise
She won’t do anything
That she said she would
She makes me feel good
She makes me feel good

I will attach one more video, but it does not have any songs from JJR, instead it is a fairly recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert featuring Lyle and his fiddle player Luke Bulla (who is really great). The story goes that Lyle contacted NPR and asked if he could perform for one of their Tiny Desk concerts, they obliged. It is just under 18 minutes, and a lot of fun. Three songs, banter, two performers. Watch this and you may want to catch Lyle Lovett in concert next time he plays in a city near you.

 

--Stu Moore is in need of finding the woman described in “She Makes Me Feel Good”. But then again, he might not be able to handle it.


52 Albums, Week 49: Suburban Light (The Clientele)

Clientele-SuburbanLight-2One rainy Saturday evening in 1976 I wandered into the only serious record store in town. By “serious” I mean it was like the record shop in the movie High Fidelity—the owner, Paul somebody, and most of the people who worked there were passionate music lovers, zealously evangelistic for the music they loved and mercilessly contemptuous of anything they thought at all meretricious. Having more than a little of the obnoxious music geek in me, I often got into lengthy discussions and arguments there. The store was dim and dusty and crammed with record bins of unfinished wood, not much better built than packing crates, and generally had a slovenly look about it, which was quite misleading, as the stock was meticulously organized. And if you still had trouble finding what you were looking for, most of the staff knew exactly where to find it, or could explain when it was expected or, possibly, why they would not soil themselves by stocking it.

I wonder if there are still such stores. In big cities, I suppose so, but this was a small college town, and the store is long gone. I moved away, so I don’t know for sure when it folded, but I don’t think it survived the transition to the cd era; somehow the cd was never quite as romantic as the lp.

The reason I had nothing to do on this Saturday evening was that I had recently been on the losing end of a breakup. Maybe I was looking for company at the record store. And, thinking back on it, I expect I had unconsciously decided to buy myself a present, an album I’d never heard before that would give me something besides her to think about for a while. The bright friendly windows gleaming through the heavy rain, full of new releases and rarities, were as inviting to me as a bar might have been to someone more convivial. I went inside, shaking off the rain, and found the store empty except for Paul—it was Saturday night. After a few pleasantries he left me alone to browse. I made a mental note not to stay past his nominal closing time, even though I knew he wouldn’t chase me out. An aging unmarried hipster with wire-rimmed glasses, hair vanishing in front and pony-tailed in back, pudgy, he didn’t have anything better to do, either.

I couldn’t find anything I really wanted. In a what-the-hell sort of mood I started browsing the expensive imports and collector’s items, something I rarely bothered to do, as I couldn’t afford them. In the second category I found a used copy of an album called Suburban Light. I’d never heard of it or of the group, but something about the title phrase appealed to my mood, as did the cover art.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“The Clientele? Oh yeah, that’s great. A totally unknown classic. It came out at the end of 1966 and flopped, then the critics rediscovered it a few years ago, but it’s hard to find. Sort of early psychedelic English kind of thing. It doesn’t sound like the Kinks but since you like Something Else so much you’d probably like it. Bring it here.” Another nice thing about the store was that Paul remembered your tastes: Something Else was one of my top five post-British-invasion/pre-Sgt. Pepper English albums.

I took it over to the counter. He slipped the disc out of its jacket—although it was used, it seemed to be in very good shape—and dropped the needle, expertly, on “Reflections After Jane.”

It was beautiful and under my circumstances almost preternaturally appropriate, so that was enough. I bought the album, even though it was outrageously expensive at something close to twenty dollars. I was so bowled over by the song that I probably would have paid that much for a 45. I thanked Paul, hurried back to my apartment in the rain, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the album several times in a nostalgic haze. It turned out that “Jane” was probably the best thing on it, but at least half of the songs were in its class, and if it didn’t quite deserve the “classic” designation it was certainly a very happy discovery.

*

Except for the description of the music, and the fact that I was living in a small college town in 1976, the preceding is pure fiction. But it’s very believable fiction: that’s what the music sounds like, and that would have been an appropriate time, place, and manner in which to discover it. Suburban Light actually came out in 2000. Its best moments capture a mid-‘60s feeling in a way that anyone who has either actual or vicarious nostalgia for the time won’t be able to resist. It’s definitely one of my top ten mid-‘60s-English-pop-revival/nostalgia albums. And I hear it’s not even their best.

(This was originally written and posted in July 2007. I've heard a couple of other Clientele albums since, and they're good, but haven't grabbed me the way this one does.)

 


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 48: Lubbock (On Everything) (Terry Allen)

Week48-Lubbock (On Everything)_html_6853d339b276d321Several years ago, a friend gave me a burned copy of this CD and while listening to it I marveled at how something so wonderful had been out there that I was somehow unaware of until that moment. The first sentence of the album review on AllMusic.com reads:

Although it’s all but unknown outside of a devoted cult following, Terry Allen’s second album, 1979’s Lubbock (On Everything), is one of the finest country albums of all time, a progenitor of what would eventually be called alt-country.

In my experience, this album will make you laugh, cry, sing along, and then start it over again from the beginning, all the time wondering how Terry Allen was able to do it. I have never listened to anything else by Allen, for fear that I will be disappointed. Nothing else he recorded could possibly be this good.

About a year ago there was a “deluxe reissue” CD, which I should really buy since all I have is the original burned copy given to me many years ago, and along with that reissue a YouTube documentary short (around 11 minutes) was filmed. Without going back to re-watch this to make sure my facts are accurate, in the documentary short the story told by the producer is that Terry Allen came into his office, sat down at the piano and proceeded to play the entire album for him (all 79 minutes). This convinced him the music should be recorded.

Allen opens with “Amarillo Highway (for Dave Hickey)”, with the chorus:

Cause
I’m panhandling
Man handlin
Post holin
High rollin
Dust Bowlin…Daddy
An I ain’t got no blood veins
I just got them four lanes
Of hard…Amarillo Highway

After I hear this refrain once, I am happily singing along until the end of the song. Terry Allen has a very distinct way of singing and putting accents on his syllables that suit the lyrics. Well, here is the song.

Terry Allen is also an artist and graphic designer, and I believe that is what he does these days, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is a good place for artists. Four years ago I was married just outside Santa Fe and a few days after the ceremony the new family and me journeyed down first to Carlsbad Caverns, and then to Marfa, Texas. Marfa is in the Big Bend area, and though the population is under 2000 it is known for artists and art installations out on the highway into town (such as a fake Prada store). There was a bookstore across from the hotel and the following day I walked over, surprised that such a small town had a store of this size. While purchasing my treasures I noticed there were small stacks of CDs at the counter, and all of them were by Terry Allen. I asked the proprietor about this and he said that Terry and his wife used to live in Marfa, but they had since moved to Santa Fe. The proprietor was a funny little guy with an odd lisp (I think there may have been a cleft palate or something going on) and he knew Terry and his wife.

Lubbock (On Everything) is a long and interesting journey, and through the first four songs, nothing appears to be amiss. Then you get to “Lubbock Woman” and that one is kind of different, a little outside what a country singer might be singing about. “The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma” takes a distinct right turn, as the singer meets a woman at a party sitting in a chair naked, who then begins to dance. Then you arrive at “Truckload of Art”. With the initial narration explaining the events of the song, a truckload of art being driven across the country, which ends up on fire. Then he sings about it. I feel like I’m giving away plot lines talking about these songs. The “Art Mob” song doesn’t seem to make much sense, but why does he keep singing about art?

“Oui (a French Song)” [I’m sure you have noticed by now that Allen enjoys parentheticals] has the wonderful line:

Now some say it’s pathetic
When you give up your aesthetic
For a blue collar job in the factory
But all that exhibiting
Was just too damn inhibiting
For a beer drinking
Regular guy… Like me

Shifting tones, several short songs in a row, occasional speaking and narration, along with subjects perhaps only sung about in country music by Terry Allen, are what make this album special. As I have listened to it in order to charge my brain enough with memory to write, I am surprised at the emotional response I have to songs not heard for a while now. I’m not always sure about the content of a song based on its title, but am then happy when I hear it and know the chorus and perhaps some other lyrics as well. But I suppose that is how it always is with art, and our response to what works for each of us individually.

I am most affected by the song “The Beautiful Waitress” on listening to it just a half hour ago or so. In our brand new age of strict sexual harassment protocol, the singer would be arrested for his maudlin attempts at love with the waitress, but nonetheless I find the lyrics very apropos and lovely. Here he is singing it live a few years ago:

Cause you’ll only love her once
Only this one time at lunch
And she might as well love you too
Ahhh…it’s the last time
You’re passin through

On the album version there is a little narrative at the end wherein the singer tells of meeting a waitress once and discussing art with her, especially the drawing of horses. This is of course also available on YouTube, for anyone interested.

Lubbock (On Everything) is one of those special pieces of music that always makes me very happy when I listen to it.

Here is a bonus song not found on this album for all the Catholics in the group: 

—Stu Moore often wishes he still lived in the desert Southwest. Apparently, he did not play enough cowboys and Indians as a small child.


52 Albums, Week 47: Symphony No. 2 ; Violin Concerto ‘Distant Light’ (Peteris Vasks)

I don’t really know enough about classical music to write about it technically, so I’m going to rely here on notes from CD releases combined with personal impressions. I don’t remember exactly how or when I first came across the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, but it would have had to have been sometime around 2004, and possibly from Robert Reilly in Crisis. The first CD I bought was a collection of shorter orchestral works, and I was enthralled. It was modern but melodic, emotionally demanding but ultimately peaceful. I bought several more discs in short order, and my favorite piece soon became the violin concerto “Distant Light.” I rank it up there with my other two favorite contemporary orchestral works, Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa” and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Here’s part of the description of the piece from the liner notes:

Tala gaisma (Distant Light) is a concerto for violin and a large string orchestra. The concerto, in one single movement, is one of the most meditative, ethereal concertos ever written; yet with an underlying tension and drama. [Composer Vasks says] ‘Distant Light is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of miles away.’

The concerto consists of three episodes interspersed with three cadenzas by the soloist.

The first cadenza leads towards a sudden increase in tempo and a jagged figure as in folk music which, in turn, is followed by a second cadenza and, beyond a dramatic change of scene, a return to relative lyricism. Some of the later passages create an almost romantic aura, but a moment of what Vasks calls ‘aleatoric chaos’ sets in shortly before the end.

From the notes on another recording Vasks describes the ending this way:

The aleatory chaos is interrupted by a waltz rhythm, robust and even aggressive. In the recapitulation, we hear musical ideas from the beginning of the piece. Although there is a momentary sense of anguish here, the concerto ends on a note of bright sadness.

Vasks, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in 1946, and lived the first four decades of his life under the Russian Communist yoke. Being a Christian, and the son of a Christian, in an atheistic country was a barrier to a “free” musical life. His music reflects this, but it also reflects the freedom achieved by Latvian independence in 1990. Thus his works have a profound mixture of turbulence, sadness, and joy, the latter often represented by musical evocations of birdsong. His music is “a unique representation of Latvian culture and spirit,” much in the same way that Arvo Part’s represents Estonia, Kancheli’s, Georgia, and Gorecki’s, Poland.

I have four recordings of this piece. The one here by John Storgards and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is fantastic in and of itself, but the other reason I chose this particular recording is the pairing. Symphony No. 2 offers another side of Vasks, his full-scale symphonic side. This is a 40 minute symphony, composed in the same basic sound world as ‘Distant Light,’ but with all the dynamics and “bells and whistles” of a full orchestra. It’s a very good piece and one I like a lot. The other recording I’d recommend is the one on Teldec by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica. This one features Vasks’ Symphony No. 1, the string symphony “Voices,” as the pairing. This is a very good piece as well, but being all strings, it doesn’t offer quite the contrast that the second symphony does, although it must be said that Kremer’s performance is outstanding, and that the concerto was written at his request.

For those who’d like to sample the piece, we are fortunate to have a very good recording of it available in its entirety on YouTube, played by one of its champions, the British violinist Anthony Marwood, who has himself recorded it in an excellent version on Hyperion with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Unfortunately it’s paired there with a recording of the jazzy, modernist Kurt Weill concerto, which I don’t like at all. (Your mileage may vary, as they say.) In this clip Marwood plays it with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The piece doesn’t really “kick in” until about the 3:20 mark, so give it a bit of time. I think the section which starts at about the 3:50 mark and runs through the beginning of the first cadenza at 6:00 is just gorgeous, and it’s not the only highlight by far.

--Rob Grano


52 Albums, Week 46: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

I've heard it said of this album that when it was first released in 1967 only a thousand people heard it, but that they all went out and started a band. Neither part of that is very accurate. I heard it when it was released, and so did all my friends, and many of us bought it. And this was in a small college town in Alabama. Granted, there were only a few of us. But still, the fact that it was available in record stores there means it must have received the same sort of distribution that most pop albums of the time did. It certainly was not successful, but neither was it something that only a handful of people knew about. After all, it had Andy Warhol's name on the cover, which guaranteed some attention. (The band had provided music for some Warhol performances and he was credited as producer.) It did manage to hang on to the lower rungs of the Billboard Top 200 for a while.

And none of us started a band, though I did make a stab at learning a few of the songs on my acoustic guitar. More to the point, I don't think it had much, if any, noticeable influence on other music at the time. The next few years were the flowering of hippie music, and if anyone else in that period, besides the Velvet Underground themselves in their next few albums, followed in their footsteps, I didn't hear it. (The Stooges, who are sometimes compared to them, seem to have been more parallel than following. And I don't hear that much resemblance myself.) 

But there is something to the "thousand copies" story. It's a somewhat exaggerated version of something Brian Eno said in 1982

I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

In 1982 that was justifiable hyperbole, because it was sometime in the 1970s that the album's influence really did begin to make itself felt. Over the following years it became a generally recognized classic, at least among critics and those musicians and fans of indie- or alt-rock. And yet even now, fifty years on, neither it nor the band that produced it can be considered a stodgy, once-edgy-but-now-dull mainstay of classic rock radio or the casino circuit. It's still powerful, still almost shocking, still about as far from formulaic pop as anything can be without tipping over into noise. 

I had considered writing about it in this series, and more or less decided not to, until last week when I wrote about the Incredible String Band. The ISB's elaborate, melodic, poetic, mystical work represents very well one aspect of the late '60s. I suppose the popular image now is that flower power, peace-and-love, etc., were the whole picture. But that wasn't true. There was always something dark in that picture. The times were a sort of explosion of energies, and by no means was it all positive. The Velvet Underground and The Doors were the most striking instances of that dark side. And I might add that Dylan in this period was not exactly a flower child.

I can't remember where I heard the phrase "the glamour of ruin," but this album has it. The music is mostly ragged, noisy, abrasive. The lyrics are mostly about ugly things: heroin, perverse sex, the hard edges of life in the concrete jungle. What did I, an 18-year-old college student in Alabama, hear in it? There was that glamour, of course, the fascination of looking into the dark side (from a comfortable place outside it). But fundamentally it was the music, by which I mean the whole package of sound and words. I listened to the album for the first time in many years before writing this, and it is just as powerful as it was in 1967.

It's not all noisy. The opening song is sweet and wistful, the empty pause of a Godless Sunday morning in the city.

Then the very next song comes crashing in with an almost mindless but driving I-V riff and a story about meeting a pusher. Another sweet song, but with an edge: "Femme Fatale," sung by the icy Teutonic goddess Nico, a German model with very limited but in the context effective vocal ability. Then perversity, with "Venus in Furs" ("Taste the whip..."). Another gripping hard rocker, "Run Run Run." A droning dirge for a troubled beauty, "All Tomorrow's Parties," sung hauntingly by Nico. 

Then the song that pretty much blew everybody away both sonically and lyrically, "Heroin." I knew someone who said he knew someone who was so fascinated by this song that he wanted to become a heroin addict. It certainly didn't affect me that way. I took it as a straightforward description of the user's psychology and experience of the simultaneous longing for transcendence and oblivion, which ultimately must mean death.  

"There She Goes Again" comes closest to something one could imagine hearing on Top 40 radio, thought it was too raw for that. And in the context of the album the lyrics suggested that she was going somewhere very sordid. "I'll Be Your Mirror" is another Nico vocal, a gentle declaration of some kind of love and support, whether romantic or not isn't entirely clear. It's these sweet moments that help to give the album its poignancy.

And the album ends with the somewhat scary "Black Angel's Death Song"--take that, American Bandstand--and "European Son,' which still seems to me a disappointing ending. Perhaps if it had more lyrics it might have been better, but after a few lines at the opening it's seven minutes of somewhat monotonous instrumental racket.

The Velvet Underground as a band didn't outlast the '60s, but Lou Reed and John Cale went on to successful solo careers. Cale appeared here early in this series. He collaborated with Nico on a couple of albums that were credited to her alone but are obviously at least as much his work. They are extremely weird and I like them a lot.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 45: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band)

HangmansBeautifulDaughter

I don't know, maybe you had to be there. I suspect this album and this band don't have a great many fans who didn't experience their music when it was new in the late '60s. The album is as good a candidate as any that's appeared in this series to meet with enthusiasm from absolutely no one apart from the person who's writing about it. Perhaps Rupert Hine's Waving Not Drowning ranks with it in general listener non-appeal, though for utterly different reasons.

I'm writing about it anyway, partly because there's always a chance that someone who's never heard it will read this and listen to the sample tracks and be converted, and partly in simple homage. The Incredible String Band were a decidedly eccentric outfit and were never widely popular, but they had and still have a very zealous following. They were very important to me at one time, and still are on the rare occasions when I take those old albums off the shelf. Their music was eclectic to say the least, and their richly imagistic lyrics spoke of an equally eclectic spirituality with a significant Christian element. It was a light to me in some fairly dark times, almost the only thread connecting me to the transcendent and to a sense of (or just hope for) cosmic meaning.

"Those albums" are principally three: this one and the two that came a year or so after it, Wee Tam and Big Huge. The latter two were originally intended to be a double LP but for whatever reason, probably the record company's wish, were released separately in the U.S. There's little reason to choose any of the three over the others: all have many great and a few not-so-great tracks. There are a number of other albums, and most of them, too, have some very-good-to-great stuff. I own them all (I think) and am happy to have them, but the good in those is to my taste mostly not quite so brilliant as the best of these three, and is lesser in proportion to the not-as-good.

The band consisted principally of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, with some assistance on this and a few other albums from their then-girlfriends, Licorice and Rose (respectively?). They started out as a folk duo, and more or less remained in the not-rock-and-roll area. I will send you to Wikipedia or AllMusic for more information on their history. 

I first heard of them when they were compared very negatively to Pentangle in a review, treated simply as failed folkies. It was an early lesson in not trusting critics unless and until you have reason to think they are more or less on your wavelength. I had a similar experience with Astral Weeks, a reviewer in one of the mainstream stereo magazines dismissed it as a lot of meaningless yelling; I was stunned when I finally heard the album.

"Koeeoaddi There" is the first song on the album, and therefore the first of the ISB's music that I ever heard, and I was immediately fascinated. There's a bit of a story about that first hearing, which I relate in my forthcoming-one-way-or-another book--nothing dramatic, just a very vivid memory. I've made occasional efforts since the internet, Google, Facebook, etc., became available to find the person who made that introduction, but haven't been able to. I'd like to thank him. (He also gave me my real introduction to Leonard Cohen, whom I'd mistakenly dismissed because I'd only heard "Suzanne" and thought it was sentimental.)

One learned pretty quickly to distinguish the Robin songs from the Mike songs, even more perhaps than the Paul songs from the John songs in the Beatles. "Koeeoaddi There" is obviously a Robin song. "A Very Cellular Song" is a Mike song. It's thirteen minutes long. The "Goodnight" part is a Bahamian gospel song. The Grateful Dead used to close out their shows with it.

 

I said the ISB had a cult following. Some members of that cult, having spent years amassing information on the band and posting it on a web site, published a book called beGLAD: An Incredible String Band Compendium. Another long-time fan provided an introduction: Rowan Williams, who was at the time he wrote it Archbishop of Canterbury. 

There was no one quite like them.... If I go back to the start, I'd have to say again that it was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such--risking the embarrassment that so regularly goes with my particular vocation--I'd also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and makes you laugh and which above all makes the landscape different once and for all.

I wouldn't say it was a discovery of poetry for me--Williams is a couple of years younger than me, and I had already made that discovery when I heard the group--but otherwise, yes. None of that would have made much difference if it hadn't been set in very appealing, rich, and imaginative music which, though obviously and even amusingly of the '60s, nevertheless sounds as fresh today as it did fifty years ago--at least to those of us who, as I said earlier, were there. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 44: (think of these as a triptych) (Neil Young)

I’ve been trying for months to decide which of three consecutive Neil Young albums to review: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After the Gold Rush (1970), and Harvest (1972). I give up so I’m going to talk about all three. I’ve never owned any of these three records. For a time, they weren’t on Spotify so I had to settle for Youtube. Now they are on Spotify, so I get to listen to a different set of ads. I don’t know much about his other music except Rust Never Sleeps.

Week43-everybody knows this is nowhere cover

Week43-after the gold rush cover

Week43-harvest cover

Each album is distinctive, but they all seem to go together like a triptych. Everybody is county/folk/bluesish/hard rock. After the Goldrush emphasized harmony and piano and is (relatively) less jammish. Harvest has the mouth harp and the steel guitar—and some orchestration. It also is the most cleanly produced. On all the albums his guitar playing is dirty, but it seems appropriate (I mean “awesome”). The albums are well-produced in a way to accent the positive quality of his distinctive guitar style. Crazy Horse was the main backup on Everybody and After the Gold Rush. Harvest didn’t have Crazy Horse, but had James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash plus some other session musicians.

Young’s distinctive voice should be irritating, but it isn’t. Why he sings in falsetto, I don’t know. He is one of those singers who can get away with a weird voice—like Dylan or, to a lesser extent, Jon Anderson. I could listen to all three of these albums in a row and not tire of the voice. His producers use more or less reverb in a way that enhances the sense of the song. On “A Man Needs a Maid,” for instance, there is none whatsoever, which gives it more of a sense of loneliness and isolation. This is enhanced by the pronounced reverb on the previous song, “Harvest.”

He is a confessional singer like James Taylor and Carole King, who were also recording at that time, but his interior life is much more interesting than either of theirs—and more poetic. I must admit many of Young’s lyrics are opaque to me. Somehow, though, the evocative images coupled with the arrangement make them emotionally charged. When they do make sense, such as in “Old Man,” or almost so, as in “Cowgirl in the Sand,” they are great.

I will include my favorite cut from all three. These are arbitrary, especially for Harvest where it is a three-way tie.

“Cowgirl in the Sand.” I chose this one for the music. The lyrics I’m not so sure of. In the acoustic intro you can barely hear a note or two from the rhythm guitar in the “right” speaker before it breaks loose when the song starts in earnest. 

“After the Gold Rush.” Man, what a song! Just Neil, the piano and the French Horn. And the dream is so rich and in some ways terrifying, including the space ship taking the remnant to a new home.

A Man Needs a Maid.” You can just feel his pain and the tension between just giving up by getting a maid and actually seeing her again. It has a cool use of the orchestra’s bells.

Probably if it was a different day I would have chosen “Old Man” or “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which is a great song to play on the guitar.

Young supported Reagan in the 1980s, but I don’t think he could be accused of being a Republican. He is more a libertarian. He sometimes gets political in his lyrics, such as “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” He doesn’t seem to like the South much.

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.


52 Albums, Week 43: Heart Food (Judee Sill)

JudeeSill-HeartFood

This is a classic, another of the albums that I figured I would work into this series. I had thought I would just write a couple of paragraphs and see what I could find on YouTube to show the best of the album. And then I thought Wait, didn't you write something about Judee Sill on the blog a long time ago? and went looking for it. Indeed I did, back in October of 2004, the blog's first year, almost exactly thirteen years ago. It was more extensive than I remembered. So I listened to the album for the first time in at least eight or ten years, to see if my opinion had changed, and it hasn't. If anything I may think more highly of it now. 

Back in the early ‘70s I worked in a couple of record stores and I heard a lot of music to the point of satiety and well beyond. Sometimes music that I liked mildly, such as the Eagles’ Desperado, was run into the ground, and music that I didn’t much like, such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, became hated. Records that weren’t very popular didn’t get played very much, which was fine with me whether I liked them or not: if I didn’t like them, it was nice not to have to hear them, and if I did like them, they didn’t get ruined by over-listening. One of these less-popular works was Judee Sill’s Heart Food. I remember feeling that there was something a bit haunting about it, something that was kind of getting under my skin, but for reasons I can’t now remember I never bought it and soon forgot about it when it stopped being played in the store.

More than ten years later something brought it to mind again. I can’t remember now what sparked the memory, but I do remember that a couple of lyrics came to mind: something about a road to Kingdom Come, and something that included the Kyrie. And I had a vague sense of Out West—deserts, cowboys, horses, tumbleweeds—as well as the notion of some kind of Christian-sounding spirituality. So I asked my old friend Robert Woodley, who for a long time seemed to know every pop album ever produced, and to own most of them, about it. He knew right away what I was talking about and, the record being out of print, made me a tape with Judee Sill on one side and the best of Ultravox on the other. Now there was a contrast: mystical Christian cowboy folk-pop paired with alienated world-weary synth-pop. I listened to both sides a lot, and the tape is much the worse for wear. I eventually bought most of Ultravox’s work, but Judee Sill’s remained unavailable.

In the mid-‘90s as more and more music resources became available on the web—retailers, fans, reviews—I made it a point to go looking every now and then for Heart Food. At a time when it seemed that almost everything that had ever been available on LP was appearing on CD, Heart Food remained absent. At one point I almost paid $50 for a copy of the LP on Ebay, but was held back by imagining the scene in which I attempted to justify to my wife paying that much money for a used LP.

This past summer Dawn Eden happened to mention it on her blog, The Dawn Patrol [2017 Note: there was a link here but it no longer works], which reminded me that it had been a while since I looked for it. Happily, it was now available, albeit at $26. I emailed Dawn complimenting her on her taste and complaining about the high price. She advised me to buy it anyway, quickly because it was a limited edition, adding that I shouldn’t balk at the price because I would get $260 worth of enjoyment out of it. [2017 Note: I believe it was after this time that Dawn Eden entered the Catholic Church; she is now a writer and theology professor, using her full name, Dawn Eden Goldstein. She still posts updates on her life and work at The Dawn Patrol.]

Still put off by the high price, I didn’t buy the CD right away, but put it on my birthday wish list. My wife having granted the wish last week, I can now say that Dawn’s advice was right on. It has probably been ten years or more since I listened to my old tape copy, and hearing it now in CD-quality audio is almost like hearing it for the first time. The sound is far richer and warmer and more detailed, and the music itself seems better than ever.

It’s always difficult to describe music, and this more so than some, because it produces an effect which is somewhat at odds with its raw materials. That is, if I say that in addition to Sill’s voice and guitar the first song (“There's a Rugged Road,” the “kingdom come” song I remembered from 1973) includes steel guitar and fiddle and in general sounds somewhat country-western, it will be accurate as to the sound but not as to the atmosphere, which is mystical. Country music is pretty down to earth and straightforward, as is the folk-country music of people like Kate Wolf and Nanci Griffith. But there is an indefinable air of mystery about this song. Those images that I mentioned earlier—deserts, cowboys, and the like—are there, but as archetypes and symbols, not as their down-to-earth selves. Perhaps one way to put it is that the Western-ness is movie-Western: cinematic, not really meant to be the real thing, lifted out of history and put to work for other purposes, in this case to provide imagery for spiritual matters. Not all the songs are in this Western mode; there are touches of gospel, Gregorian chant, and soft rock. The album as a whole really should seem like a hodge-podge, but it’s held together by Sill’s voice and visionary songwriting.

Although the lyrics are full of Christian symbols and allusions, and at least two of them seem to be quite explicitly Christian, the album’s liner notes make it sound as if Sill’s Christianity was eccentric at best. That’s as may be, but it needn’t bother the listener. I’m always at risk of hyperbole when praising a work that I really like, but it seems to me that this album as a whole is worthy of being ranked with anything produced in post-1965 popular music. And the final song, “The Donor” (this is the one I remembered as including the Kyrie) is, whatever Judee Sill may actually have believed, one of the most moving cries to God that anyone has ever put to music.

Strong words? Well, listen for yourself. And say a prayer for the soul of Judee Sill. She had been a drug addict before getting straight enough to pursue a serious music career and make Heart Food and its predecessor, Judee Sill. Like a lot of addicts, she apparently never really shook off the lure, and returned off and on to heroin and other drugs, including pain-killers for injuries suffered in a car accident. She never made another album, although there are some demos for a projected third, and in 1979 died alone of an overdose which, as in the case of Nick Drake, may or may not have been suicide.

A long and lonely road to Kingdom Come, says the first song, and I suppose that’s what Judee Sill had, although in years it was not so very long. But “The Donor” pretty well describes her relationship to the rest of us. The making of art is a curious thing. The artist does his work for motives almost never entirely pure—Judee Sill apparently wanted very much to be a star—completes it, and moves on. The gift remains.

*

This is the "road to Kingdom Come" song I remembered. It's the first song on the album. 

And this is the last song, an 8-minute masterpiece. 

So sad, and so true.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear some people say they don't like her voice. It does have a rather pronounced western twang, which I think works best with the folky songs, but for me it doesn't detract from the others. Listening to the album now, I was reminded that Robert had left one song off that tape, "Soldier of the Heart." I think he was right to do so; it's not bad but it's closer to rock than anything else on the album and seems out of place. He also included at least two songs from Sill's first album, Judee Sill, which I've never really given much attention.

There is a lot more information on Judee Sill, her life and work, on the web now than when I wrote the 2004 piece. There are live performances and at least one documentary on YouTube. And it turns out that the third album was very close to completion, and has since been issued. It's called Dreams Come True, and according to Thom Jurek at AllMusic is very good. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.