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52 Albums, Week 42: Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Brian Eno)

Week42-MusicForAirports

I'd been thinking since this series began that I would include at least one ambient album, just in the interests of making the scope very broad.  I had in mind a few favorites as possibilities, and I finally started thinking about my choice a few weeks ago when Rob G gave us a techno album. (The association is that both techno and ambient tend to be all or mostly electronic.) 

But in listening to those favorites I found at least one or two tracks that I didn't much like, that spoiled or disrupted the atmosphere. And since ambient music is at least 80% atmosphere, that's a pretty big flaw. There was, for instance, Steve Roach and Roger King's Dust to Dust, which conjures a western desert feeling, more accurately described as a western desert movie feeling. I like it, but it has a couple of rhythmic tracks that to me don't really fit. Here's a sample track, "Rain and Creosote," which also has a nice video. And Ishq's Orchid, which I have described as an auditory tropical vacation, and have sometimes called my favorite ambient album; it, too, has its infelicities. A sample: "Bhakti." (Both these use "environmental" sounds--real-world, non-musical sounds, like rain and birdsongs, also a common feature of ambient music). Some others I thought were just very unlikely to appeal to anyone who reads this blog--too weird and dark (there is a whole sub-genre called "dark ambient," to which I'm somewhat partial)

So in the end I decided that, as the song says, the original is still the greatest. Music for Airports, as people generally refer to it, was released in 1978, and has the distinction of being the first ambient album to be described explicitly as such. You can read Eno's account of what he was trying to do with the "ambient" concept in the liner notes for the album. I hadn't heard it for some time, and when I got out the CD and listened to it I thought it was if anything better than I remembered. 

I think most of the sounds on it are "real," i.e. not produced electronically. Certainly the piano is, and I think the voices are, too. But the album is constructed with looped segments--tape loops, I assume, this being 1978. Also, this being 1978, the concept of "sides" was important. There are four tracks, two to each side of the LP. They're not named, but numbered by side and track. 

I'm pressed for time, so that's enough talk. If you want more discussion, the album's Wikipedia page has some. Here's 1/1. Or should that be "1/1"?

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 41: Rattlesnakes (Lloyd Cole and the Commotions)

Week40-Rattlesnakes

By the time this record came out in 1984 synth-driven pop had begun to dominate the music scene, and while there was a fair amount of guitar-oriented stuff circling under the mainstream radar, generally speaking you didn’t get to hear much of it unless you actively looked for it. I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to check this album out – I’m sure I had read a review somewhere – but I’m glad I did, because it became a favorite of mine, and Lloyd Cole grew to be a very dependable go-to artist for me.

Although I was a little put off at first by the album’s comparative polish (at that time rough edges tended to be generally viewed as a plus) I liked it all, finding it enjoyable both musically and lyrically. I was 23 when I bought the record (the same age as Cole was when he made it, actually) and I wasn’t quite sure how much of Cole’s lyrical shtick was tongue-in-cheek and how much was really autobiographical. That kind of thing matters far less to me now, but as it turns out Cole has said that it was both.

He can be a bit pretentious, but it’s mostly a fun sort of pretention. In the Wikipedia piece on the album he says, “I was a young man! I really was. You can just imagine me trying to wear a French trench coat at the time, thinking I looked very cool when, in fact, I looked really stupid. But maybe that's why people liked it."

Although Cole is English, the band was formed in Glasgow while he was at university there, so sometimes you’ll hear that the band was “Scottish,” which isn’t entirely untrue. When the album was released in the UK the opening track, “Perfect Skin,” became the album’s biggest single but both the title song and “Forest Fire” also got considerable airplay, and the album actually made it into the Top 20, peaking at no. 13.

The title track is quite representative of the album as a whole, while “Forest Fire” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I’ve also included “Four Flights Up,” a fun number that contains some good samples of Cole’s memorable lyricism, including the memorable line, “Must you tell me all your secrets when it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing?”

 

 

Also worthy of mention are the soft and haunting “Down on Mission Street” and the album’s wistful closer, “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”

Cole and his band did two more records, Easy Pieces and Mainstream, and while both are enjoyable and have their great moments, neither is as good overall as Rattlesnakes. The band then broke up and Cole moved to New York City, where he continued as a solo performer, producing four more albums, the best of which is 1991’s Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, arguably his best record after Rattlesnakes. In all he did seven albums between 1984 and 1995, all of them worth hearing except for 1993’s Bad Vibes, an ill-advised foray into a darker, harder-edged sound. I haven’t been much taken with his more recent acoustic material, but those records from his earlier period have been constant companions of mine over the years. Rattlesnakes has remained my favorite of those, and one of my favorite records period.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


52 Albums, Week 40: Goths (The Mountain Goats)

Week40-Goths

My eldest son, who heard so much folk music as a baby, has now for perhaps four or five years listened to very little else but the Mountain Goats, which unavoidably means I have been exposed to their music too. His predilection makes long drives additionally trying when he has any choice of music, since with few exceptions the songs are not music to drive to. I have nevertheless become acclimatised to them. There are a couple of songs on the previous album, Beat the Champ, as well as one or two from earlier albums, that I like well enough to put on myself when nobody else is around. I even went along with my two eldest children when there was a Mountain Goats concert at a surprisingly small venue in Brussels (my eldest also attended the same tour’s show in Amsterdam, which I thought was taking things a bit far).

My grandmother used to watch the wrestling on television, back in the days when there was only one screen in the house to watch anything on. Although it was never something I would watch from choice, there’s something achingly evocative about the way the song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” describes a lonely and put-upon child’s fixation:

Before a black and white TV in the middle of the night
I'm lying on the floor, I'm bathed in blue light
With the telecast in Spanish, I can understand some
And I need justice in my life, here it comes
Look high, it’s my last hope
Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope

This kind of sympathetic recognition is something I find even more strongly in their latest album, released this year. The unifying theme of Beat the Champ was wrestling; that of Goths is the 80s youth subculture of those who called themselves (in South London at least) “Goffs”.

There are definite dangers in a youth subculture that revels in morbidity and decay, to the extent of using satanism as a style accessory. Nevertheless, as someone with a liking for the Gothic side of Romanticism (far more responsive to the “alone and palely loitering” than to the “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”) I was always rather sympathetic to the Goth aesthetic, however cartoonish it can be in comparison to the genuinely Gothic: so many Goths recognisably felt the same pull. There’s also something endearing, as well as a bit pitiful, about alienated teens making a mascot of their alienation, social “outsiders” forming an in-group for outcasts. The way this is then packaged and commodified by the music and fashion industries, making suckers out of those seeking solace, is one of the saddest things about it. The album Goths somehow manages to speak of the phenomenon, or style, with a nostalgic affection and a critical distance that conveys all of this.

I’m not sure how much of the album is straight autobiography, how much is ventriloquizing in imagined lives things the writers have themselves felt, and how much is an inhabiting of the unfelt imagined. I say “writers”, as there are two writers credited, but the bulk of the writing on this, as on all the other Mountain Goats albums, is by John Darnielle, the central figure in a changing line-up.

The opening track, “Rain in Soho”, has an insistent beat, and backing vocals from the Nashville Symphony Chorus, which makes for a striking combination with the cryptic lyrics.

Although oblique in specifics (perhaps through allusions that escape me), in general terms it’s clear that the song is about time past and faded, the irrecoverably lost:

No morning colder than the first frost
No friends closer than the ones you've lost
Nothing sharper than a serpent's tooth
Nothing harder than the gospel truth
Though you repent and don sackcloth and try to make nice
You can't cross the same river twice
The river goes where the water flows
No one knows when the Batcave closed

One allusion that I do get, and that astonished me, is the Batcave, a London nightclub that was the epicentre of the emergence of the Goth phenomenon (as reported on local news at the time). “Rain in Soho” perhaps suggests a later attempt to find the vanished birthplace of the movement. I saw the news clip linked above when it was first broadcast, or one very like it at about the same time, and as a 12-year-old Batman fan the name stuck with me (as did the vision of those strange young people, who seemed utterly daft yet somehow enviable). When I did encounter Goths in the flesh, maybe five years later, they seemed a sorry bunch of misfits, but by then these were the provincial diehards of an already fading fashion. It fills me with amazement that somebody from the other side of the Atlantic should be singing about the Batcave thirty-odd years later, when to me it was just a brief (though never forgotten) item on the local news.

Goth’s English origins also come up in We Do It Different on the West Coast (“The papers write about it back in England / It’s practically a lifestyle in Berlin / There’s probably some pockets in Ohio / There’s always something happening in Ohio” — like so much else, the reference to Ohio puzzles me; is it true, or does it show how hopelessly provincial the speaker is if even Ohio seems like a “happening” place?). The specifics of the English history of the Goth also crops up in the album’s second track, Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds. This narrates a low-point in a musical career, yet to take off, while other songs on the album hint at musical careers abandoned (Paid in Cocaine: “Baubles and bangles, a lost age / Still all aglow with the radiance of the stage …. Work to pay down the interest on the mortgage / Used to get paid by the gramme”), or not yet abandoned despite never really taking off: “Shelved”, with the chorus “The ride’s over, I know, but I’m not ready to go”; Rage of Travers, “Still draw pretty good in Ontario / Nobody wants to hear the twelve bar blues / From a guy in platform shoes”; For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands, with the wonderful line “Headline really big festivals every other summer in Brazil”; and Abandoned Flesh: “However big that chorused bass may throb / You and me and all of us are going to have to find a job”. All of these songs could be a memento mori, or a meditation on transitoriness and failed ambition, cast in terms of popular music. Perhaps it’s far-fetched, but I can’t help thinking of the lutes, flutes and sheet music in Dutch Vanitas still-lives.

Some of the songs are written not from the perspective of washed-up performers, but of insecure young fans, uncertain of their place in the outcast in-group that could all too easily exclude them should they be “uncool”. This is hinted at in The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement with the lines “Leather and lace and good friends / Most of them good, most of them friendly” and the repeated chorus of “I’m hard core, but I’m not that hard core”; and it’s as good as stated outright in Unicorn Tolerance (“Try hard to look hard behind my blackout sunglasses … Feel shame, real shame, for what my friends must think of me”).

“Leather and lace” in “The Grey King”, a “purple crushed velvet waistcoat” in “Stench of the Unburied” (on which more below), “dark paisley” in “Paid in Cocaine” the whole of the song “Wear Black”: the central importance of clothing, the “look”, to the Goth experience is brought out in all sorts of ways. (“Rage of Travers”, in contrast, has “aviators and a buckskin frontier hat: how come they dress like that?” — a buckskin frontier hat is just about the most un-Goth item of clothing I can imagine, after a lumberjack shirt.)

“We Do It Different on the West Coast”, incidentally, beautifully evokes just how hard it was for young people to get information about musical subcultures before the Internet:

I heard some good things from some friends about Chicago
I gotta see with my own eyes about Chicago…
Skim through such magazines as I can get my hands on
Glue circuit boards to plywood on the weekend
Trellis modulation for the children
There's a whole new world just up around the corner…

“Stench of the Unburied”, already touched on above, stands out from the other songs in sketching a single moment of drink-and-drugs-and-music-fuelled elation crashing into reality:

Heading up the Golden State Freeway toward Eagle Rock
Ice chest full of corona and pineapple crush
It'll take twenty years for the toxins to flush
And when the sirens wail
I know we're going to jail
And outside it's ninety two degrees
And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees

To finish, I will mention simply that “Abandoned Flesh”, the final song on the album, ends with the lines:

Because the world will never know or understand
The suffocated splendour of the once and future Goth band

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


52 Albums, Week 39: Hourglass (Kate Rusby)

Week39-Hourglass

In 1997, the year my first child was born, Kate Rusby, the Barnsley Nightingale, brought out her debut album, Hourglass. At the time I was working on my doctorate, and sharing a flat with an old school friend, also a doctoral student, who spent money on music. I had not yet then myself got out of the habit of spending money only on books. The combination of a colicky child who was quiet only when held, and my friend’s purchase of the newly minted CD of Hourglass, meant that I spent many, many hours rhythmically ambling around the flat with a baby in my arms, to the sound of Kate Rusby’s voice (Eliza Carthy sometimes providing variety).

The album’s centre of gravity is traditional. About half the songs are anonymous folksongs, and those that aren’t are stylistically similar. The performance is acoustic. None of Steeleye Span’s or Fairport Convention’s electric folk here. The opening track, “Sir Eglamore”, is a light version of a combat between dragon and knight (in the spirit of the St George of winter entertainments), with the knight of the title unable to pierce the dragon’s hide with his sword, and finally jabbing for its open mouth, only for the dragon to run off home with the sword stuck between its jaws. It is related to the American “Old Bangum”, in which a hunter fights a wild hog.

As I Roved Out” (Roud 3479) is perhaps more familiar from Planxty's version of the 1970s . “The Jolly Ploughboys” was entirely unfamiliar to me:

When six o' clock comes, me boys, at breakfast we'll meet,
And cold beef and pork we'll heartily eat.
With a piece in our pockets, to the fields we do go
For we're all jolly fellows that follows the plough.

And so on through the day. Two of the songs, both about drownings, were sung by Nic Jones in the 1970s: “Annan Water” (a Child Ballad) and “The Drowned Lovers”, my absolute favourite from the album, and the one the baby most often slept to. It is not only a tragic story of thwarted young love, but also a dramatic piece in different voices, as much direct speech as narrative reporting. 

A little under half of the songs are original or new compositions — “A Rose in April”, “Radio Sweethearts”, “Old Man Time”, and a couple more. These are very much in the same style but somehow, to my taste, do not match up to the traditional material. A piece that falls somewhere between the two is another of my favourites, “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” (recorded by Sinead O’Connor a few years before, but in nothing like so effectively creepy a rendition), a modern translation of an old, and anonymous, Irish poem. 

 —Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


52 Albums, Week 38: A Deeper Understanding (The War On Drugs)

WarOnDrugs

I think this will be the first piece in this series to look at a current album (this one came out three weeks ago) but this is a good enough record to warrant the attention. I also thought about doing either Slowdive’s recent self-titled comeback album or Ride’s Weather Diaries, both of which are also current and also very good, but this one’s the most recent, and it’s been spending a lot of time in my player, which makes it easy to write about.

I first heard of Philly band The War on Drugs in 2015 after the release of their widely acclaimed album Lost in the Dream. Upon my first listening I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, but I liked it a lot and listened to it fairly incessantly. The new album continues in a similar vein to the last one, and except for one small misstep is very close to its equal. Imagine a mash-up of Dylan, Tom Petty, and Springsteen, with some 80’s influence as spice, and you’ll have some approximation of what W.O.D. sounds like. That, and layers. Lots of layers. (Some of the songs on here have as many as a dozen instruments being played at once, often in overdubs.)

One of the things I love about this band is that it seems that lead man/songwriter Adam Granduciel takes a strong devil-may-care attitude when it comes to arranging and recording. You want six guitars and a glockenspiel included in a song? Got it. You want the album’s initial “single” to be an eleven-minute slowburn folk-rocker with an intermission in the middle? You got it. You want a stinging feedback-laden electric guitar solo to show up in a slow acoustic ballad? You got it. Unexpected harmonicas show up out of nowhere, odd snatches of 80s-sounding synthesizers appear in places where they shouldn’t, and on several songs it’s hard to tell if the drumming is real or electronic (or both). Believe it or not it all works wonderfully.

Granduciel’s voice does sound a lot like Dylan’s, and the songs are often constructed in a basically Dylan-esque manner, but the resemblance probably stops there. Ditto Petty and Springsteen – at their best they’re both better songwriters than Granduciel, but Petty’s never been nearly as musically creative, and The Boss only came close in his early days. Some of this risk-taking creativity may be due to the fact that Granduciel is in his late 30’s, and thus has had a fair amount of time to hear and process what’s come before him, unlike some of the younger artists currently taking a stab at being “retro.” As one reviewer put it, The War on Drugs is simultaneously one of the newest sounding and most retro things you’ve probably ever heard.

The other thing I like is the way that the songs take their time in developing. Most of the tracks on A Deeper Understanding are five minutes or longer, and even the ones that seemingly start off rather plain usually take interesting turns. Which brings me to the one minor negative about the record. I’m not sure why it was decided to end the album with two long slow songs back-to-back, especially when one is much more interesting than the other. It serves to reduce the magic of one of the album’s best tracks, the majestic “In Chains,” by following it with the okay-but-not-brilliant “Clean Living.” I think the feel would have been better maintained in going straight to the album’s excellent closer, “You Don’t Have to Go,” a slow song with some real power. But this is a small complaint when gauged against the album’s strengths.

I’ve included videos for two songs, one slower, one more up-tempo, and can say that if you like these two you’ll like the rest. Best way to listen to these is loud and/or with headphones. Cheap computer speakers will not do them justice. 

 

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


52 Albums, Week 37: A Salty Dog (Procol Harum)

ASaltyDog

Seems like I recently said that something was one of the great albums of the '60s...what was it?...maybe not...well, anyway, this one is, or close to it. I've always felt that Procol Harum was under-appreciated. Most people only know "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which is a great song wonderfully performed, but there's much, much more to them than the one song. I think the whole album, which is just called Procol Harum, on which that song appears is very fine, though reportedly it was put together hurriedly. Their second, Shine On Brightly, is a mixed bag, with several very good songs in the vein of the first album but marred by an grandiose 17-minute suite which in my opinion doesn't succeed. A Salty Dog, released in 1969, was their third, and I think their best, though the next one, Home, is very good as well. The one after that, Broken Barricades, seemed a real falling-off, and I didn't hear the ones that came after, though I've heard good things about a couple of them and should give them a listen.

My only reservation about A Salty Dog is that the second side doesn't quite measure up to the first. Yes, I still think of all the albums from that period in terms of "sides," not just because they were physically sides but because you tended to hear each side as a unit; at minimum there was going to be an interruption when you turned the record over. I don't think there's a better side in all of pop-rock music than side 1 of this album. If I had to, I'd swap at least half of the Beatles' catalog for those five tracks. I say "tracks" instead of "songs" because although these are very fine songs the performances and arrangements are essential parts of the package.

Having written the two preceding paragraphs a couple of days ago, and not having heard the album for years, I thought I should listen to it again and see if I'd changed my mind. I listened to the "sides" separately, a day apart. Side 1 is at least as good as I remembered, maybe even better. The title track, the first on the album, is simply a masterpiece. It's not rock, exactly-- I don't know how you'd classify it. It's a slow, majestic, soaring tune with a haunting piano and string arrangement, and lyrics that tell a story of a ship and crew that sail right out of this world. There are no guitars, and the drums don't come in until halfway through. If I were going to pick one song to make my case that a deep spiritual yearning sometimes showed itself in '60s rock, this would be my best choice. I found it almost unbearably moving when I heard it all those years ago, and it hasn't lost any of its power. I almost hesitate to include it here, because if you don't know it you're liable to hear it in some inconvenient setting where you can't fully appreciate it. But here it is anyway. 

Procol Harum was one of the few groups who had a lyricist who was more or less a member of the group but not a musician. This might be his best lyric.

The other four tracks of side 1 are all different and all more or less brilliant: pretty straight-up rock ("The Milk of Human Kindness"), a gentle song about failing love ("Too Much Between Us"), heavy(ish) rock ("The Devil Came from Kansas"), and a lively and whimsical complaint about "Boredom."

Perhaps the side should seem like a hodge-podge. Maybe some people think it is. But to me it all flows together very nicely.

Next day I listened to "side 2." For the first three songs I thought You were wrong. This is great. "Juicy John Pink" is a blues with potent death-and-judgement lyrics:

 Won't you have mercy on your wicked son
Take me up to heaven not hell where I belong

"Wreck of the Hesperus" is a great song, classic Procol. But they made a mistake in having Matthew Fisher, the keyboard player responsible for that majestic organ in "Whiter Shade," sing it. His voice is not bad but Gary Brooker was one of the great rock vocalists, and the song would have been even more powerful with his voice. "All This And More" is more classic Procol, deficient only in comparison with their absolute best--and Brooker sings it. 

With "Crucifiction Lane" came the big letdown, reminding me why I didn't like side 2 as well. It's a long, slow, bluesy song, at five minutes the longest on the album. It's not that great a song, and Robin Trower sings it, and he's not that great a singer. 

But then it's back to excellent with the closer, "Pilgrim's Progress." Once again Fisher sings, and it probably would have been better if Brooker had. but it's still fine, even if it seems to be trying to be another "Whiter Shade of Pale." It's freshened up with an outro that makes for a nice farewell.

If side 2 isn't as good as side 1, it's better than I remembered. That means it's an even greater album than I remembered. I'll amend my earlier statement: I'd swap half the Beatles' catalog for this album minus "Crucifiction Lane." 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 36: Dummy (Portishead)

Portishead_-_Dummy

I think I first encountered the term "trip-hop" in a description of this album. I don't remember exactly what the description said, but it was intriguing. I also don't remember if or how I managed to hear a bit of it, as this was in the late '90s or early '00s, before YouTube and various other means of sampling music online were available. (Napster was probably around, but I scorned it; it seemed little different from theft.) It seems unlikely that I would have bought it entirely unheard, but maybe I did.

At any rate I did hear it, and I did like what I heard, and I did buy it, and I did like the whole album, quite a lot. Moreover, I soon learned that I could count on the label "trip-hop" to be pretty much a guarantee that I would like the music to which the label was attached. Not that I would necessarily like the particular instance a great deal, but I would like the basic sound, the basic style, enough to listen to and enjoy even a run-of-the-mill effort. 

What is that sound? Well, the name would seem to mean "trippy hip-hop," but the relationship is a little obscure to me, since I don't know that much about hip-hop. I guess it refers at minimum to the slow-ish, smoky, shuffling beats, like those you hear a lot in rap and hip-hop, and to the use of samples. (Dummy also includes scratching, but I don't think that's typical.) "Smoky" is a good adjective in general. Trip-hop tends to be smoky, slow, mysterious, melancholy, somewhat strange, heavy on the electronics, maybe somewhat jazzy. Moody and warm female vocals are favored. Samples of old recordings sometimes give it a nostalgic or retro feel.

At any rate all of that applies to Dummy. the 1994 debut release of Portishead, a three-person group consisting of singer Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley. The album is basically a studio concoction put together by the three of them, and I think they have to bring other people on board to perform it live. Barrow is credited with various tasks involving electronics, and Utley usually with guitar and bass. The writing credits go to all three, though I think I read somewhere that Gibbons is the lyricist. 

So. A listen will be far more helpful than more verbiage from me in acquainting you with their sound, if you aren't already familiar with it. Here are the first two tracks, which are very representative of the whole, as the album is remarkably consistent in style and quality. The spy-movie-sounding guitar in "Sour Times" is a sample from an album called More Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin, who did the famous TV show theme music.

 

One more. This one is a special favorite because of the surprising and effective quotation from Jude 1:3. 

Portishead have not been very prolific. They put out a second album, just called Portishead, three years after this one. I bought it a few years ago but am embarrassed to say that I have yet to hear it. I think part of the reason is that this one album seems such a complete and perfect statement of a particular aesthetic that more almost seems superfluous. There are also a live album and, ten years later, in 2008, one called Third. And Beth Gibbons has a solo album, Out of Season (2002),which I own and have only heard once. It seemed at first hearing rather different from Portishead. I'll get back to it eventually.

I'm having trouble thinking of a lot to say about this album, but it's not for lack of enthusiasm. It's actually one of my favorite popular music recordings. As you can probably imagine if you've listened to these tracks, it's great for listening to in the dark, with a drink in hand. (I don't know, smoke might be more appropriate, but I don't do that.)

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


52 Albums, Week 35: Triplicate (Bob Dylan)

Week35-Bob Dylan Triplicate-Stu_html_5f3ae80987b18121

In popular music, it is quite exciting whenever an important artist re-invents him or herself. Now that I wrote that sentence I am struggling to come up with any besides Bob Dylan and David Bowie (BD and DB?), but I’m sure there are more. Many of us have written about how much Van Morrison’s music has meant to us. Most have also picked out time periods of Van’s vast discography that meant more, possibly due to “coming on board” during the time of those albums. I submit to you the thesis that Mr. Morrison, however wonderful he may be, has never really changed his musical direction very much. Therefore, everyone eventually tends to get a little bored with his output.

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, has a habit of re-inventing himself every now and again, and just when his legion of fans thinks, “this is it”, he’ll go and do it again. Those thoughts come more and more the older he gets, now in his mid-70s. A few years ago to the surprise (I think) of all of us, he released Shadows in the Night. Ten songs from “The Great American Songbook”, all sung by Frank Sinatra during his career. Sinatra is even listed as the co-writer of the first cut on the album, “I’m a Fool to Want You”. I do not think I’m going out on a limb to say that pretty much everyone considered this album an odd anomaly along the lines of the Christmas disc from a few years previous. Then the very next year we got Fallen Angels, with eleven of the twelve tracks sung previously by Sinatra. I dutifully bought both of the CDs as released, as I have done with all of his studio albums since around Empire Burlesque, which probably coincides with the first time I saw him in concert.

Everyone took a breath, and wondered, “What the hell is going on?” Some said it aloud. Unlike most other artists, Dylan gives no feedback (in this way, Van Morrison is just the same). The albums are released, the critics gush, and he tours and sings the songs. He never really makes any statements, does any press, has anything to say about why he might make any sort of move. Years will sometimes pass and he eventually does an interview (famously on 60 Minutes about a decade ago), and he will just circle around the questions in an obstinate manner. Answering them in his own way, which usually boils down to something along the lines of “the music takes me where I go, it’s all about the music, why would anyone want me to comment on any of this when you can just listen to the music?” Amusing and annoying at the same time. I’m not sure Van Morrison has even said that much, but perhaps he throws a bone to the press in Belfast, as Dylan occasionally does here.

But back to the music! I am a big fan of “The Great American Songbook”, and for instance those five (yes, five) Rod Stewart CDs are guilty pleasures of mine. I love to drive in my car listening to these songs, whether it is Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, and now Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan. So what makes Dylan different from all of those other people? His voice. And what is the first reaction to any sane music fan when confronted with now five (yes, five) discs of GASB music from him? Why? How? Won’t he sound terrible? For those of you less interested in this sort of thing than people like me (and Mac), Triplicate is a three-disc set. Each disc has 10 songs, and runs exactly 32 minutes. So put that together with Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, and we have the aforementioned five (yes, five), just like Rod Stewart. Did he want to match Rod? Does he want to make more? Who knows?

I really like all five, and I think his voice is sort of terrific for these songs. Dylan visited Mobile last November, and I was curious what he would do. This was before the release of Triplicate, but nonetheless his previous two albums were standards. Would he dare play an entire concert of them? The two albums together would be 22 songs, your average amount played at a live show. He put on what I thought was a great show; there were three songs from Shadows, two from Fallen, and one other “I Could Have Told You”, that ended up on Triplicate. The rest of the show was heavy on Tempest, and then a scattering of earlier songs.

There is the school of thought that you go to a concert of a classic rock icon in order to hear your favorite songs. Although I understand that thinking, I really prefer my rock n’ roll heroes to continue to be productive and roll out new songs. Especially in the case of someone whose voice has changed so much in the past fifty years, you will inevitably be unhappy with the way your favorite song from the 1960s now sounds. However, I have seen Dylan at least twelve times, so that forms my expectations perhaps a little differently.

The reason I like these albums, and Triplicate is my favorite of the three, is twofold. First, I think Dylan does an amazing job interpreting these songs with his craggy old vocal chords. You can tell he is very familiar with them, he has lived them, and in many cases listening to the lyrics, they are better sung the way he does it. Not all songs are meant to sound bright and chipper. If you remember the famous Frank Sinatra versions of “The September of My Years”, or “Once Upon a Time” he did the same, the context of the verses should be reflected by the singer. When the lyrics are light (and as I look at the 30 songs I don’t see too many of those), the accompanying music speeds up, and Dylan’s voice attempts to reach a higher pitch to match. In reference to the music (and, secondly), all of these songs star Dylan’s travelling band (Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier, et al), with of course added musicians as needed. I do not think this is a normal thing for big stars to do, but since he has The Never-Ending Tour always going on, it is a little easier to keep the guys together. They are great, they do a fabulous job, and this is most likely not an easy thing for rock musicians to do – slow things down and let the music live with the song and its lyrics.

I have written enough. Here are some YouTube videos of favorites, but they are all good!

“Stardust”

“P.S. I Love You”

“Once Upon a Time”

--Stu Moore is a proud member of the alt-left, but he doesn’t like to be in crowds, so his membership is lapsing.


52 Albums, Week 34: Tranceport (Paul Okenfold)

Tranceport

While I like this sort of music a good deal I don’t know much of the technical stuff about it – the lingo escapes me, as do the monikers for the various subgenres. What I do know is that among all the varieties I gravitate towards the material with the recognizable musicality of chord progressions and melodies, or at least semblances of them (not all techno/trance has these qualities).

This particular album came out in 1998 and is considered an early classic of the genre, but I didn’t know that when a friend gave me a copy six or seven years ago. As it turns out it comes in at #23 on Rolling Stones Top 30 all-time list of EDM albums. (EDM stands for “electronic dance music,” now the current term for all music of this general type, including everything from Kraftwerk to Moby to Skrillex.)

You have to listen to this music somewhat differently than other styles, as it doesn’t develop like most Western music. Instead it has more in common with minimalist music, and some threads of its origins can be traced back to musicians experimenting with combinations of minimalism and electronic music.

Not sure how accurate this is but I’ve come to think about it this way: Most music we hear develops from a starting point to an end point: it’s going somewhere, and the various voices, instruments, etc., are arranged in such a way as to get the listener from point A to point B. Trance doesn’t really work that way. The songs are constructed primarily for continuous dancing, and thus are arranged to flow directly from one into another without stopping. Hence, the musical development all happens vertically above the basic axis and not along it, so to speak. Sounds, instruments, and voices are added and subtracted in such a way as to propel the song to the next one, rather than to bring closure. For the casual listener this gives the illusion that the songs are repetitive and “don’t go anywhere,” but if you listen attentively this really isn’t true. It is this for me that makes it listenable and keeps it interesting: how will things be added and subtracted in order to maintain the ongoing motion without the whole thing becoming just an exercise in repetition? This is especially important when most of the songs run six to eight minutes in length, and sometimes longer.

One thing that becomes very noticeable the more one listens is that since the music is generally all in a very strong 4/4 time signature, the changes almost always occur on beats with multiples of four with eights or sixteens being very prominent. Count in your head either two or four measures of four beats and something usually happens, whether very noticeable, like a full stop and restart, or very subtle, like a change in the tone of a keyboard or the addition or subtraction of a percussive sound.

The song “Gamemaster” is a great example of this type of arrangement, in that it is both a very musical piece, and one in which the adds and drops occur regularly and noticeably. The song is at the tempo of eight beats in seven seconds, so it’s slightly faster than 120 bpm, and everything happens in even-numbered multiples of seven. To show how this works here’s a partial list of the adds and drops for the song “Gamemaster” so you can follow along while listening. I’ll say upfront that the spoken voiceover that comes in about half way through is rather silly, but it doesn’t really detract from the song itself. It’s notable that even though the audible beat drops out during this section, the metronome is kept running, and the spoken bit lasts 42 seconds (6 x 7 seconds, or 12 measures).

After the song starts things remain basically static for the first 42 seconds, then:

:42 – a double time (16th note) synth starts

:56 – another different synth comes in

1:10 – beat drops out

1:24 – synth comes in without drum beat

1:38 – high-hat cymbal is added

1:52 – drum beat returns, which leads to first chord change at

1:59 21 seconds later to

2:20 – first appearance of an arpeggiated synth

2:48 some dropouts occur, then more at 3:02.

3:16 – second keychange

3:30 – spoken voiceover begins, lasts 42 (6 x 7) seconds, then full beat kicks back in exactly 8 beats (7 seconds) later.

The remainder of the song roughly follows this same pattern, eventually bringing everything back in and adding a couple new things, including loud piano chords and a high choral female voice, until at the 6:36 mark the “breakdown” begins, gradually stripping away almost everything except the bass drum line, which allows the dj to use this “outro” to blend the song seamlessly into the intro of the next one.

When it’s done well I find this stuff to be very exhilarating, and it’s one of my favorite kinds of music to listen to while driving. I recognize I’m probably in quite the minority hear so your mileage may vary. I often wonder what a guy my age is doing listening to this stuff but I take some comfort in knowing that Paul Oakenfold’s still at it, and that he himself is only a couple years younger than me!

So here’s another one just for the heck of it.

(For more info see the Wikipedia article on “trance music.”)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


52 Albums, Week 33: The Harrow and The Harvest (Gillian Welch)

Slightly revised from an October 2011 post.

Week33-HarrowAndHarvest

I liked Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator a lot (you can read my 2008 review of it here), though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and The Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in sound, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others. And of course the lyrics are not exactly cheerful, "six white horses" being a traditional motif signifying a funeral.

Six white horses coming after me
Six white horses coming after me
Pretty as a picture, certain as a scripture
Six white horses coming after me

Time the Revelator is ten years older that Harrow, and yet the latter sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.
--Welch, quoted in the Wikipedia article, from a New York Times interview

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in her first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings
And come on you dogs (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. She recognizes the inaccuracy: in an interview I read some time ago she said that "'Gillian Welch' is the name of a two-person band." So perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding.

At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

By the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”

 

 

 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.