Dylan has a song, released on the first of the outtakes collections falsely called "bootlegs" (it's not a bootleg if it's released by the record company), called "Foot of Pride." It was recorded for the Infidels album but not used, thereby making the album weaker than it might have been. To me Infidels is one of Dylan's many very-mixed-bag albums, half great and half so-so. At least that's the way I recall it--I haven't listened to it for many years. "Foot of Pride" might even have been my choice for best track on the album, had it been there. Or possibly second-best, if another outtake, maybe the most celebrated and lamented of them all, had been kept: "Blind Willie McTell." Here's "Foot of Pride":
It's a weird phrase, and I wondered exactly what it meant. The general idea seems clear enough: when the consequences of your actions come to pass. Reading the Coverdale translation of Psalm 36 a while back I was startled by this: "O let not the foot of pride come against me."
Had Dylan read the Coverdale Psalms (the translation done by Miles Coverdale in the early days of English Protestantism)? Surely not, as they are, or for several centuries were, the official liturgical translation for the Church of England and other Anglican bodies, and not much known outside those. But also not impossible, I thought. The mystery was cleared a little when I compared Coverdale to King James: the latter also has "foot of pride," and it would be considerably less surprising that Dylan had encountered it there. Either way, I have to consider it far more likely than not that he got it from the Bible; it's just too odd. And not from a more modern translation, most of which seem to go for the less obscure "foot of the proud."
You'll notice that the fairly clear meaning of either translation seems to be the opposite of what I took Dylan to be saying. He seems to be suggesting that the foot in question is a sort of nemesis of the proud, not a menace to the righteous. Oh well--I've always considered the business of trying to read Dylan as if he were Ezra Pound to be a waste of time.
The Coverdale Psalms, as I've mentioned before, have definitely become my favorite version, overall. I add that last qualifier because the King James version of the 23rd can never be replaced in my mind, if only because "still waters" touches me more than "waters of comfort."
Back to Dylan: "Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in" sort of expresses the way I feel when reading the froth of journalism and entertainment on the internet. I wish I could break myself of the habit of reading so much of it.
He was a smart businessman who made millions telling y'all it's okay to goof off all the time.
That was my wife's observation, and I thought it was too funny to keep to myself.
I mean no serious disparagement of Jimmy Buffett. I was oddly saddened when I heard of his death--oddly because I wasn't a great fan of his music, and never even heard much of it apart from the few songs that were played on the radio.
Maybe it was because I loved "Margaritaville" when it appeared in 1977. My family vacationed on the Florida Panhandle coast when I was growing up, and I always had a sort of romantic relationship with that area. The crush had been dormant for some years, but "Margaritaville" caused it to flare up again. (I think it was the line about the flip-flop and the pop-top. And the shrimp.) It's a good song by any reasonable standard, and an awfully appealing vision of beach life without major responsibility, yet including that offhand serious movement from evasion to responsibility ("It's my own damn fault.")
I'd probably like more of his music if I heard it. The truth is that I was put off his work not long after "Margaritaville" was a hit. He played in Tuscaloosa, where I was living at the time, and I went to see him. It was the only concert I've ever left before it ended. Buffett seemed to be pandering to the dumb college audience, causing them to erupt in frantic cheering by saying the word "beer" or anything else to do with drinking. Or sex. I was hoping for something with more depth than simple-minded party music. The songs may actually have had that, but I didn't know them and of course couldn't hear the lyrics very well, and the atmosphere was brainless college party. (Isn't it sad that "dumb," "brainless," and "college" go so easily together?) It was disappointing and dull and I left early. I'm pretty sure his music, at least some of it, deserves better. "Margaritaville" itself is no shallow celebration of indulgence.
A White Sport Coat And a Pink Crustacean remains one of my all-time favorite album titles, though as far as I remember I've never heard it. He was very good at that kind of wordplay, though the number of people who get that particular joke must be diminishing rapidly.
Buffett grew up in Mobile and is thought of as a local hero, but I have the impression that he didn't much reciprocate the sentiment, in part maybe because Mobile radio was not receptive to his music, especially in his early days. A few years ago I heard a snatch of one of his songs in which he complains about that. His family lived in the Mobile area called Spring Hill, the most affluent neighborhood in the city, and he went to the Catholic high school and reportedly was an altar server at the chapel of Spring Hill College, which in his day was the unofficial parish of the neighborhood. According to this article in Church Life Journal, "Catholicism left an indelible mark on his imagination":
O bless me father yes I have sinned Given the chance I’ll prob’ly do it again
Yeah, I hear that. And the article continues, making a point similar to my wife's:
Once again there is a contradiction in the telling: in order to show that one can have a successful life by just having fun, Buffett commits himself to work hard...
He might be the world’s most famous beach bum, but he eschews excess in his personal life and is a driven, hands-on entrepreneur.
You don't create the kind of empire that his Margaritaville restaurants and resorts became without being driven. I've never been to one (there's not one here), and probably wouldn't like it much if I did. But he gave a lot of relatively innocent pleasure to a lot of people, and our deteriorating popular culture is the worse for his loss. RIP.
Local lore says that the cover photo of this 1981 album, which I have never heard, was taken in Point Clear, up the road from where I currently live, which was, in Buffett's youth, where many affluent Mobile families had summer homes. It certainly looks like it could have been, apart from the phone booth. Piers like that are seen all along the shores of Mobile Bay, not at the Gulf.
Forty-five years after "Margaritaville," I live an hour away from the Gulf and don't go to the beach very often--once or twice a year, maybe--because of the traffic and the condominiums and the crowds. "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." When I do go, it's in late fall and winter, when it's still pretty nice.
Last Christmas someone gave me a biography of Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer, by Philip Watson. In case you don't know the name, Frisell is a guitarist, one of the best-known musicians on any instrument in the contemporary jazz world, though "jazz" is not the right word for much of his work: how about small-group mostly-instrumental partially-improvised song-based American music? And substitute "solo" for "small group" on some recordings, including the first album issued under his own name, In Line, on the famous (iconic!) ECM label. Well, that one isn't 100% solo--several tracks include the bass player Arild Andersen. But it's mostly Frisell's guitar, and I think all the compositions are his. And although he's best known, and was first known, as a guitarist, his compositions are a major contributor to the high regard in which he's held.
This is one of them. To my taste, and apparently to the taste of a good many others, including the author of the biography, In Line is not an entirely satisfactory album as a whole. But according to the book, this one track, "Throughout," seems to have a way of getting under people's skin. It definitely got under mine.
It also got under the skin of Petra Haden. Jazz fans (if there are any who read this blog) will notice her last name, even if they haven't heard of her. Yes, she is the daughter of Charlie Haden, the legendary (iconic!) bass player, whose long career began in the late '50s. Petra is one of a set of triplets, all of whom are musicians. She is quoted in the book:
'When I first heard it, I said, "This is my favourite song, in the world,"' she says, smiling. 'There was a point where I would listen to "Throughout" for hours--how he layered the sound, like I enjoy doing when I record my vocals. The music reminded me of that feeling of being in a dreamland.'
Several of her musical projects have involved multi-tracked a cappella vocals. Presumably she was pleased to work with Frisell on an album cleverly titled Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. This vocal and guitar arrangement of "Throughout" appears on it.
I have not heard the whole album yet. And although I want to hear it, I have to say that I am even more eager to hear another Petra Haden album: a cover of the entire Who Sell Out album rendered in her multi-tracked vocals. Goodness.
I will never be able to hear all of Bill Frisell's recorded work. Look at his discography. And it's not a case, as it too often is with jazz and pop musicians who manage not to die young, of brilliant youthful work followed by years of mediocre repetition. When Watson proposed the book to Frisell, the latter's first reaction was "What would you write about?" Apart from decades of making brilliant music, Frisell's life is not very dramatic. He had a stable and happy childhood and youth, met with considerable encouragement and opportunity, including teachers like the guitarist Jim Hall who gave him not only instruction but connections, has never had the drug and/or drinking problems so common among popular musicians, and has been married to the same woman since 1979. Maybe the dissolute artist route is not necessarily a good way to go, if one has a choice.
I don't have any idea at all where I got the mp3 of this song, or rather track--it's not exactly a song, but a combination of droning and mechanical sounds and percussion. I found it haunting. And I don't remember how I figured out that the voice might or must be that of Robert Oppenheimer, as it does not include the famous "I am become death" line, but somehow I did.
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent.
I haven't seen Oppenheimer, but it strikes me that this would be an effective soundtrack for the credits, if not for Oppenheimer then another on a similar subject.
After not hearing this for some years, I thought of it a few months ago and went looking for it among my mp3s. It took me a long time to find it, which is not surprising: I have thousands of mp3s, and the name of the artist is Scar Tissue; the name of the track is "Lazsik"; the name of the album is Form/Alkaline.
That's a line from an Al Stewart song, "On the Border," the second hit single from his very successful 1976 album (and extremely successful single by the same name), Year of the Cat. It's one of the little cultural fragments that are always bouncing around in my head, and it probably shows up once a week or so, usually called forth by some little thing that strikes me as an emblem of the disappearance of the country I grew up in. Here's the context:
In the village where I grew up Nothing seems the same Still you never see the change from day to day And no-one notices the customs slip away
It's no longer the case for me that "you never see the change from day to day." The place--just a country crossroads, not really a village--where I grew up has mostly been...I started to say "wiped off the map," but it's worse than that: it's being physically wiped away, replaced by factories and warehouses. Some of it is still recognizable. But I'm not sure anyone actually lives there now. And this:
In the islands where I grew up Nothing seems the same It's just the patterns that remain, an empty shell But there's a strangeness in the air you feel too well
I try not to harp excessively on the sense of living in a country that is no longer the one in which I grew up. Something like that is always the case to some degree for old people, though the rapid pace of change over the past hundred and fifty years makes it stronger, often much, much stronger. Some of it is just a species of nostalgia which is really an inevitable effect of time itself, and the changes that produce it are not necessarily for the better or the worse.
But still: has our constitutional republic not become an empty shell, something manipulated by ideologues and oligarchs for purposes of their own (what the leaders of today's Democratic Party refer to as "our democracy") rather than the effective instrument of ordered liberty that it ought to be? How many people now believe that we--all the American people--are really all in this together, sharing a common ideal? How many have an effective understanding of the concept of citizenship, or even an interest in it?
The "century" to which Stewart refers is now twenty-three years in the past; the song is going on fifty years old. But although the details are different the observations are still relevant.
Anyway, it's a great song, and I think an extremely good album, though I haven't listened to it for many years. The images in this video are apparently from the Spanish Civil War, an event which some fear could be a pattern for our future. I don't really think that will happen, but the levels of partisan hatred make the warning apt.
I wonder how many hours have been entertainingly wasted in arguments about the nature of certain pop music sub-genres (not to mention sub-sub and so on), and about whether this or that band belongs in this or that category. Shoegaze seems to me one of the more difficult to pin down, in part because it often involves very loud and heavily distorted guitars, which gives it a lot of potential for overlap--with metal, for instance.
Here are a few attempts at a definition. Wikipedia:
...characterized by its ethereal mixture of obscured vocals, guitar distortion and effects, feedback, and overwhelming volume....
Shoegaze combines ethereal, swirling vocals with layers of distorted, bent, or flanged guitars, creating a wash of sound where no instrument is distinguishable from another. The genre was typically "overwhelmingly loud, with long, droning riffs, waves of distortion, and cascades of feedback. Vocals and melodies disappeared into the walls of guitars."
It’s a particularly unusual genre in that its name describes neither a sound nor a connection to music history. This music is, above all else, a place to explore the outer limits of guitar texture. And emotionally, shoegaze turns its focus inward. The extreme noise eliminates the possibility of socializing while the music is playing, leaving each member of the audience alone with their thoughts. It’s music for dreaming.
Me, a few years ago:
I'll just say that in my mind the term implies very thick guitar textures combined with wistful and dreamy melodies and lyrics. Personally I lean toward the overlapping term "dreampop"; that is, the shoegaze I like tends also to fit the "dreampop" category.
My remarks are from a 2019 post about Pitchfork's list of 50 Greatest Shoegaze albums. I was familiar with maybe ten of them, and in spite of my professed intention to get acquainted with some of the others, I haven't done so. Too much music, too little time. Also too many books to read, too much writing to write, etc.
But wait: I did get acquainted with one, Catherine Wheel's Chrome. I was motivated because another Catherine Wheel album, Ferment, is one of my favorite rock albums of any style, and according to Pitchfork Chrome is even better. Ferment is #23 on their list, while Chrome is #9. If the latter is better than the former, I certainly wanted to hear it, and never mind the sub-genre label.
Well, according to me, it isn't. I like Ferment a good deal more. I first heard it quite a few years ago, before the turn of the century, on a tape sent to me by a friend who supplied me with a lot of good music over the years.
If I remember correctly, it took several hearings for me to warm up to it, but I soon grew to like it very much. The mixture of loud, noisy (there's a difference) guitars, tunes that took slightly odd turns and stuck firmly in the mind, and Rob Dickinson's unusual throaty and plaintive vocals were different from anything I'd ever heard. I don't think I heard the term "shoegaze" until much later. Here's the opening track from Ferment, "Texture":
On the other hand, according to my personal idea of shoegaze, #9 on Pitchfork's list does not even fit the category--not as a whole, anyway, though several songs do. It's hard rock, though without the bluesy flavor that's typical of the music that falls into that category. Some species of "alternative" or "indie" rock, of a pretty hard-hitting sort, maybe. And if obscured vocals are a defining characteristic of shoegaze, neither of these albums fits.
"Texture" is certainly loud, but it has some of that dreamy quality. The first track on Chrome, however, "Kill Rhythm," is not just loud but aggressive, with an angry edge (at least). "Texture" begins "Safe on the shore I've been sleeping." The first words of "Kill Rhythm" are "I want to fire a gun--show me."
Chrome is an excellent album, whether or not I think it should be called shoegaze. But apart from that question I still prefer Ferment. To my taste its songs, overall, are better. There are three or four tracks on Chrome that seem pretty lackluster to me.
The title track of Ferment is one of my favorites. Among other things, it has a very striking, even shocking, dynamic contrast: a pretty little tune that suddenly erupts into crushing noise. I know, that hardly sounds like a pleasant experience, but I like the effect. I kept thinking that the pretty part reminded me of something, some psychedelic thing from the '60s, and I finally realized the something was the live tracks from Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. Not the music alone, but the lyrics and the atmosphere as well.
There's a very, very brief warning that the noise is coming, a sort of buzzing or squealing, maybe something that happens when some effect is turned on. If you listen to this be a little cautious with the volume.
AllMusic describes Catherine Wheel's music as a "dark, hard-edged brand of noise pop"--not as succinct a description as "shoegaze," but more accurate. Both these albums were released in the first half of the '90s, and were the group's first. By the end of the decade they had released three more proper albums and broken up. I'm familiar with only one of that three, Adam and Eve. It's a rather different thing, more varied than either Chrome or Ferment, and at times going off in a very different direction. I definitely wouldn't call it, on the whole, shoegaze. AMG says it's
...greatly influenced by Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. So it's significant that Talk Talk's Tim Friese-Greene, who'd already produced Ferment and played on Happy Days, was called in again to play keyboards and ended up playing a major role in the album's sound, along with vaunted Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin
If you know those two Talk Talk albums, don't seek out this one hoping for something similar. I only heard that at a few points. But the comparison does suggest something serious and worth hearing, which I think it is.
Back in the first paragraph I mentioned the potential overlap between shoegaze and metal. There are in fact several (at least) bands who attempt to blend them, or have wandered back and forth between them. The one I'm most familiar with is a French group--mainly just one person who started out in black metal--called Alcest: "A dynamic Fench post-metal/blackgaze group strongly influenced by the British shoegaze movement." (AMG) How's that for a genre spec?
Don't be uneasy about listening to and watching this video; there is nothing of black metal at all in it.
I really haven't heard that much of them, and I'd like to. Too much music, too little time....
I recently decided that I wanted to get to know Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das wohltemperierte Clavier). I have a recording, a two-box set of LPs given to me fifteen years or so ago by a friend who didn't want them. (He's mainly a jazz fan, and I got the impression that he had bought some classical recordings mainly for educational purposes, now either fulfilled or abandoned.) The pianist is Sviatoslav Richter, and the recordings were originally issued by the Russian (Soviet at the time) recording company (if that's the word) Melodiya, and in this country by the Musical Heritage Society in the 1980s.
I was a little hesitant, and not sure how far I would get in the series. When I first encountered the title many years ago, I thought it must be semi-humorous: the composer taming the savage keyboard, or something along that line. In a college music history class (one of my half-dozen or so favorite courses in all of my schooling) I learned that it is very prosaically, clinically, descriptive. The explanation quickly gets beyond my very limited knowledge and discernment, but the general idea is that in order to get a keyboard instrument to sound in tune in all keys you have to tweak the tuning of each string just a bit away from the mathematically correct frequency. If you want to read all about it, try this.
To demonstrate the concept--and incidentally write a classic work--Bach composed a set of forty-eight preludes and fugues, a pair for each of the twenty-four keys (majors and minors). That was Book I. Nearly twenty years later he published Book II. So: ninety-six compositions.
I started, sensibly, with side 1 of disc 1 of box 1: the first four pairs, in C major, C minor, C# major, and C# minor. Something about the recording bothered me a little. I think it was mainly the quality of the sound, which though not terrible is somehow a little distant, and there seems to be some dynamic variation from one track to another, more than is accounted for by the character of each piece. So I decided to look for other recordings, and I found Glenn Gould's.
Whenever I talk about classical music, I start with the disclaimer that I don't have much of an ear for variations in interpretation. Often I'm pretty sure that I would not be able to distinguish one performance from another. But in this case.... Here, listen for yourself to the two performances of the first piece in the series, the Prelude in C Major from Book I. Even if you don't know the WTC, you'll probably recognize it. I think it's often performed alone.
You don't have to have a rarefied level of connoisseurship to hear the difference between those. I think I may actually have laughed aloud when I heard Gould's: it's almost mechanical-sounding, with that resolute thumping on the low notes that outline the harmony. With my folk and pop sense of how music works, I think of them as the bass player staking out the chord progression. But I can't help liking the performance. It makes the structure crystal clear, almost reducing the piece to structure. I certainly don't state that as a principle, but in this instance, maybe just because of the immediate contrast with Richter, it seemed delightful.
Someone says in a comment on that video that "Gould doesn't play Bach. He explains Bach." That strikes me as pretty accurate. That first prelude seems a deliberately provocative statement of his intention not to seek out or impart emotion to the music, but to show us how it works. After that statement he relaxes, still cool but not lecturing. And for me he brings a clarity to the music which in fact increases rather than limits the aesthetic-emotional effect.
That's especially true in the fugues. And it's the fugues that led me into this venture. With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. Yet I've heard people say that this or that fugue moved them to tears, and I'm intrigued by that, and wonder what I'm missing.
And I find that Gould's performance is opening up the fugues to me. I'm up to E Major now, and am enchanted by most of the preludes, and enjoying the fugues more than I have in the past, though they're still a bit of a struggle. It helps that most of them so far are fairly short.
It's a lot to absorb, and I don't expect to get through both books anytime soon, especially as I don't intend to give up all other music until this project is completed. But it's a lot of pleasure, too. I had a vague notion that The Well-Tempered Clavier is a somewhat academic, pedagogical work. Wrong. Already I think it's climbing up my ladder of favorite music and approaching Goldberg Variations territory, which is at the top. I'm listening to the Gould recordings on Pandora (Plus), and thinking that I may have to buy the CDs, which I'm supposed to have given up.
Here's an introduction to the fugue which I found helpful. It helped just to have it pointed out to me that fugues typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
If you know Gould's work and, um, habits, you'll be amused by this customer review at Amazon:
I absolutely love the music itself, but the quality of the discs leaves a little to be desired. Throughout different sections there seems to be some type of strange "other" sounds. Sometimes it sounds like there is background music. Other times, it sounds like the pianist is humming to himself. These are studio recordings and it sounds like someone is talking in the control room during the playing.
P.S. I'm puzzled by the fact that in #8, the prelude is described as being in Eb Minor, while the fugue is described as being in D# minor. It led me to discover the word "enharmonic" ('a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently'). But that doesn't explain why these two pieces are named that way.
Dead Can Dance is a two-person group comprised of Lisa Gerrard (of the amazing voice) and Brendan Perry. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Gerrard's solo album The Mirror Pool led me to this one. Or, I should say, back to it, because although I have it I had not listened to it for at least twenty years. Judging by it there seems to be a tendency for their joint effort to be clearly separable into Gerrard tracks and Perry tracks (as the work of the Incredible String Band was clearly separable into Robin Williamson and Mike Heron songs). The first one, for instance, "The Host of Seraphim," could have been included on The Mirror Pool, as could several others featuring Gerrard's voice, often multi-tracked: vaguely Middle-Eastern-sounding chants, either in some foreign language or none at all.
There are two songs on this album that I really love, and they are sung by Brendan Perry, perhaps written by him, with clear and interesting lyrics (in English). This is one of them, "Severance":
The other is "Ullyses" (sic). And I also like a third one which Perry sings, "In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Are Kings." I don't dislike the others at all, but neither do I love them. Still, the album as a whole is a rich experience, a stately, often grandiose, mysterious and distant sound-world. The instrumentation is sparse and fairly simple, as in "Severance": droning organ (or something of the sort), a tinkling harpsichord, big slow drums, bells, strings. The credits list only hurdy-gurdy, violin, viola, and cello, but there are many sounds here obviously not produced by any of those (unless they were transmogrified electronically).
The album was released in 1988, during the glory days of 4AD Records. Since that was pre-CD, or at least early in the CD takeover, it's of LP length, meaning that it does not overstay its welcome. I'm sure you can hear the whole thing on most of the streaming services, and if you like "Severance" you probably should.
What about the title? I vaguely thought that it had some proverbial sort of meaning, and the phrase is common enough that it has a Wikipedia page. It's the name of one of Bergman's lesser films, one which I have not seen. But Brendan Perry is quoted as saying
In a lot of aerial photographs of the Earth, if you look upon it as a giant organism—a macrocosmos—you can see that the nature of the life force, water, travels in a serpentine way.
And Shakespeare uses it, though my guess is that this is not what Perry had in mind. From Julius Caesar:
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg, Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous, And kill him in the shell.
I mentioned in that Lisa Gerrard post that something of a spiritual nature had put me off this group not long after I first heard them decades ago. This is the only one of their albums that I've heard, and now I don't find anything seriously off-putting in it. So I wonder if it was something I read, or if I'm just less critical. They do in general have that New Age vibe, a sense of interest in or connection with esoteric spirituality-but-not-religion, but not to an annoying or offensive extent. I definitely want to investigate their work further. AMG gives most of their albums 4 to 4 1/2 stars; this one gets 4 1/2.
I have the album on cassette, almost certainly bought used. And now I have to make a decision: I have a lot of cassettes--should I get rid of them? I rarely listen to them, and they take up a fair amount of space. I have a perfectly good player, so I can't use the excuse of having no way to hear them. Perhaps a third are pre-recorded, i.e. commercial products. Probably very few of those are essential. The rest are mixtapes, compiled with care by friends through the '80s and into the early 2000s. But it seems a shame to throw them out. Maybe I'll just leave that task for my children, who won't have my same scruples.
If you weren't there, it may be difficult for you to grasp the effect that "The Girl From Ipanema" had on a young man of the mid-'60s. You needed only her voice to convince you that she was the girl from Ipanema, and to strike in you the deep chord of longing which the song describes and expresses. This was confirmed when you saw a picture of her.
The album on which the song appeared, a collaboration between Stan Getz and João Gilberto called simply Getz/Gilberto, is a masterpiece which ought to be in every music lover's collection. The video below is the album version, not the hit single which was edited down to little more than half the five-minutes-plus of the album track, removing João's vocal and shortening Getz's solo.
The song would never have been the hit that it was without Astrud's vocal, which came about half-accidentally. She and João divorced a year or two after the album was recorded. She had a "relationship" with Getz and toured with him. She was mistreated and cheated financially by Getz, who was notoriously something of a monster.
Coincidentally, a little while before I read that story I was listening to Nick Cave's song "People Ain't No Good." There's way too much evidence of that.
But Astrud Gilberto did go on to have a fairly successful musical career in her own right. I have a solo album of hers, The Shadow of Your Smile, recorded a few years after Getz/Gilberto. It's an LP, picked up at Goodwill or someplace when everybody was dumping their vinyl, and I don't think I've ever played it.
Listening to Mary Fahl made me think of this artist, another of those who helped make the name of the 4AD label revered for many years. Lisa Gerrard was one half of the duo Dead Can Dance who released a number of albums on that label in the '80s and into the mid-'90s. I'm familiar with only one of these, The Serpent's Egg (1988), and I haven't heard it for a while. But as I recall--and it's a pretty vague recollection--I had a mixed opinion of it, and that was partly because of a sort of dark quality--not emotionally dark, with which I am usually happy (contradictory though that may be--or not), but spiritually dark. That was and is not something I can easily articulate or explain, but I felt that the band (if that's the right term) was inclined to that often foolish spirituality which involves a sort of non-judgmental syncretism that should in some instances be a bit more judgmental.
But then maybe I was over-reacting. I think the "while" since I've heard it probably approaches twenty years, and perhaps I was in fact a little overly judgmental. There was a time when I was not only heartily sick of what so many people now call "spirituality" but also wary of it to a degree that I may not be now. If so, it's probably more a function of age and fatigue than of any real softening toward very bad ideas; I'm tired of the fight. And, too, things have gotten much worse, so whatever bothered me about Dead Can Dance may not seem as significant now.
Well, I probably shouldn't even have said all that, as it's based only on a vague memory. My next close listen will be The Serpent's Egg; I'll find out what I now think about it and report back.
Anyway, about Lisa Gerrard and The Mirror Pool: as with the Mary Fahl album, I have it on CD, and there is enough about it that I like that I intend to keep it. I'd give them both 3 1/2 stars on a five-star scale. But beyond the star count and the fact that both feature very powerful female singers, there's very little in common between them. Mary Fahl is a writer and interpreter of songs, whereas Gerrard, like Elisabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, often sings wordlessly. In fact as far as I can tell there is no English on this album at all. And for that reason (and the 4AD connection) I've sometimes seen the two bands associated. But there, again, there isn't really much similarity.
And this solo project of Gerrard's has even less in common with the work of the Twins. In fact it has very little connection with pop music at all, in any ordinary usage of that term. It would not be unfair to describe it as one long dirge. And by "long" I mean an hour and eight minutes. The lively moments are few, and not all that lively. Most of it is extremely slow and, perhaps unintentionally, gloomy in tone, or at least somber: minor keys, and a frequent use of what I think are Middle Eastern melodic turns that to my ear always have a somewhat dark quality, as do some of Gerrard's vocal techniques. The arrangements are grandiose and monumental. There's some use of non-Western instruments which adds to the exotic--or, to use a term which is now frowned upon, foreign--atmosphere. More than a few moments strike me as sort of...well, the word that comes to mind is "spooky," and maybe that's what bothered me a little about Dead Can Dance. There is a fair amount of keening and wailing--in fact, I learn from Wikipedia that Gerrard's music has been prominent in the use of the "wailing woman" in movie soundtracks.
And yet I found myself letting it play over and over while driving. Every time the CD reached the end, instead of ejecting the disk and picking something else I would allow it to start again (which the player in my car does automatically), which I don't think I would or could have done if I'd been sitting quietly at home, as too much of the album is too much the same. It's partly, or mainly, because the first several tracks are pretty much my favorites, so I was always ready to hear them again.
I haven't actually mentioned the voice yet. It's magnificent. This is my favorite track on the album: "Sanvean: I Am Your Shadow."
I think the reason the string arrangement seems familiar is that it strongly resembles Pachelbel's famous "Canon in D." It's melodically and harmonically less "exotic" than some of the other tracks. Another such is an aria, "Ombra ma fui," from the Handel opera Serse (Xerxes), here titled "Largo." Whether she is singing the words of the aria or not I do not know. Those two tracks, with others that are somber without that spooky quality, are enough to make me hang on to the CD. I'd give a five-star rating to an EP composed of my favorite thirty minutes or so of the album.
I understand the justification for the wordless singing, or rather, as Gerrard might say, singing in the words of an invented language meant to communicate emotion directly. But it seems a bit like cheating, or at least corner-cutting. I don't know much about singing but I would think it would be very convenient to put sounds together as you like, and not have to deal with whatever constraints are involved in singing notes fitted to an actual word made of sounds not devised with singers in mind.
I've been casting a cold eye on my CD shelves with the intention or at least hope of getting rid of a few discs. There isn't enough room for all of them, and there are at least a dozen that just sort of sit around here and there. A certain number aren't even really mine, but were left behind by now-grown children who don't want them anymore. Should be easy to just toss those, right? By "toss" I mean give them to Goodwill, from where they will probably be really tossed but at less cost to my mildly neurotic conscience. And for other mildly neurotic reasons I can't even do that without being certain that I don't want them. That means, in cases where I've never heard them (too many) or maybe heard them once or twice years ago (many more) and never gave them a chance, that I have to give them a fair trial.
So: a week or two ago I pounced on this one. I don't remember buying it, but most likely I did so because it includes "Going Home," a song which I had found rather touching in the Civil War film Gods and Generals. But I'd never given it a serious listen.
Well, now I have, and unfortunately for my shelf-clearing project I like the album too much to get rid of it. It's not really, speaking broadly, the kind of music I like--it's very slick, very lavishly produced, lavishly emotional, very big. The biggest thing about it is Mary Fahl's voice, which is huge. If you know Lisa Gerrard's voice, you might agree with me that Fahl's is in the same league.
And yeah, it's a sort of mushy song and a mushy arrangement. I could do without the instrumental bridge, which pretty much screams SOUNDTRACK! But I find it moving.
Sometimes her voice threatens to run away with the material. I thought of a Honda Civic with a V8 engine (which, now that I think about it, is an argument in favor of the big production). It's not that she can't sing gently and with nuance, as parts of "Going Home" demonstrate. You just feel like she has so much power that she sometimes has to throttle it back, but doesn't really want to. She cuts loose more on the apparently Middle Eastern love song "Ben Aindi Habibi," the lyrics of which (printed in the CD booklet) are intensely passionate.
I found myself thinking that the guy to whom it's addressed might find himself thinking This woman may be too much for me. But he certainly ought to be flattered to be the object of such passion.
I don't like the whole album by any means. I'd say roughly half the songs aren't much to my taste as songs, never mind the performance. But the other half I like quite a lot. It compares favorably with dramatic female artists like Loreena McKennit and Enya. (But not Kate. Kate is too weird for that comparison.) It stays.
I always like to see what AllMusic has to say, and in this case I think their review is quite unfair. The reviewer was a fan of October Project, a band in which Fahl was the main vocalist, and apparently doesn't like the direction she takes in this album. Well, okay, I can certainly relate to that. Some people never recovered from Dylan's embrace of rock-and-roll. And I'm pretty sure I will never again listen to Nashville Skyline. But it's unfair and unkind to say that Fahl did it for commercial reasons. I'd be willing to bet she poured her heart very genuinely into it.
I'm now curious about October Project. And even more curious about another Mary Fahl project: a cover of the entire Dark Side of the Moon.
By "fans" I mean fanatics, or near-fanatics--the kind of person who likes the work enough to know all (or at least many) of the most highly-regarded recordings and can discuss in detail the strengths, weaknesses, and nuances of each.
I am not such a person with reference to any piece of music. The number of works which I have in multiple recordings is very small, and in the cases where I have a preference I usually can't say a great deal beyond "I like this one better."
I'm asking because I have a friend who is such a person, and she recently urged me to listen to this performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto by an eighteen-year-old Korean named Yunchan Lim. She described it as "an earth-shaking event in the world of R3 fanatics," adding that the words are not too strong. If you know the work, I'd be interested in hearing your reaction: do you agree that this performance is extraordinary?
As for me: I had never heard the Third. I like the Second, though it's not one of my favorite works, and I have not heard it for many years. Somehow I'd gotten the impression that the Third is inferior, or at least widely considered to be so, which was mistaken. Since I'd never heard it, I was in no position to either concur or dissent with my friend's view of Lim's performance, so I decided to listen to another. Van Cliburn's 1958 recording seemed appropriate, since Lim's performance had won him the award named for Cliburn. And it was in 1958 that Cliburn became famous even among people who never listened to classical music, including the ten-year-old me, for winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition, in which he had played both Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninoff 3. I vaguely recall being aware of his fame as a young star at the time. Apparently it had Cold War ramifications.
So I have now listened to the concerto several times, Cliburn's three and Lim's twice. And I can say two things: one, I like the concerto a lot, a whole lot. It is a wild, over-the-top piece of music, and you don't have to be a pianist to know that it's extremely difficult. The piano concerto is not my favorite genre, but this is one I'll be listening to many times. It must be some kind of acme in romantic fireworks, but it seems to me to have more depth than that description suggests.
And two, I do prefer Lim's performance, but I can't say much about why. It seems more fluid, more clear. But maybe I'm only reacting to the quality of the recording, not the performance, as Cliburn's has a sort of muffled quality.
Although the Cliburn recording I listened to was made in 1958, it is not the competition performance that made his name. This video does seem to be that performance.
If you're not very familiar with the way real experts talk about performance, listen to some of them discuss the question "Is Yunchan Lim's Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto the greatest ever?" Two were on the Cliburn Award jury.
I rather think the conductor and orchestra, Marin Alsop and the Houston Symphony, deserve significant credit for the performance.
Oh, and there's also this question: how in the world does an eighteen-year-old reach not only that level of virtuosity--rare, but not the only example--but the kind of expressive depth that people in the comments on that last video describe. For instance:
I was changed because of his humanity, his ability to transcend the instrument, the music, and connect to something much higher, it almost stopped my heart from beating. I saw God in his playing.
This is the piece (and performance) which Craig mentioned in a comment on my recent post about the young composer Caroline Shaw. It's a setting of a few sentences from Psalm 84. I was not able to figure out exactly which translation she uses, but another performance includes the text as:
How beloved is your dwelling place, o lord of hosts, my soul yearns, faints, my heart and my flesh cry out.
The sparrow found a house, and the swallow her nest, where she may raise her young.
They pass through the Valley of Bakka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn also covers it with pools.
I suggest that you listen to the other performance as well. It has a smaller choir and the parts are more distinct. Also it seems to have been assembled from pieces recorded separately during Covidtide.
And here is a very different sort of work, "Other Song."
Are either of these classical music? We can be literal and say that a genuine classic by definition cannot be very new, because the definition includes having stood the test of time: "instant classic" is just a way of expressing enthusiasm. Obviously Shaw's pieces are not that. Being less literal and referring to a tradition, we have to say that they, the second piece especially, are certainly not Bach or Brahms. And not Schoenberg or Stravinsky or even Copland. The first piece "sounds" more classical: it's performed by a trained choir, and its basic sonority of massed voices is not essentially different from Renaissance church music. "Other Song," on the, um, other hand includes elements associated with pop music--not only the percussion itself, but the rhythms used by it. The composition however takes strange turns not often found in pop music, and I don't think even the better pop singers would be able to handle certain parts of the vocal line with the same precision and clarity.
So "contemporary classical music" is almost a contradiction in terms by the test-of-time standard, and often decidedly un-classical in composition or instrumentation or both, a tendency that has been going on for some decades now, at least since the Kronos Quartet recorded "Purple Haze" in the 1980s, and no doubt before. I think I vaguely recollect hearing of such things in the late '60s. I was mildly surprised when I read in Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise that Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead was a composition student at some university in California before the Dead got started. And the debate about whether the term still has meaning or not (apart from its historical reference) has been going on for at least as long.
Let's just say that this is music written and performed by people trained in, and making use of, the techniques of the Western classical tradition, and not be too concerned about categorizing it. I think of the remark made apparently on more than one occasion by Duke Ellington: "If it sounds good, it is good." (Peter Schickele used that as a sort of motto for his very enjoyable and very eclectic radio program "Schickele Mix.") I always imagined Ellington's words as a response to the listener who might say something like "Well, yes, it sounds nice, it has a certain surface appeal, but is it good?" It's not an unreasonable consideration, really. But in the long run Ellington is right, and in the long run the superficial will be sorted out from the solid. And I think Caroline Shaw's music is very good.
Philosophically, she is apparently in the contemporary mainstream, which is not really a good thing, but hardly a surprise, and her heart is in the right place. A note on that second performance says of "And the Swallow" that it "has to do with finding a home and celebrating the sense of safety." There's nothing wrong with that, but it leaves out most of the psalm and its most important sense. And the video for "Other Song," according to Nonesuch Records, "was shot at Rise and Root Farm, a five-acre farm in New York’s Hudson Valley that is rooted in social justice and run cooperatively by four owners who are women, intergenerational, multi-racial, and LGBTQ." Well, I salute their willingness to plow and plant, anyway.
"Intergenerational" is an odd thing to be proud of as a social justice accomplishment. In the natural order of things, most groups of people are. Families, for instance.
I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last weekend, after having argued with myself about whether it was worth the trouble or not. That's no aspersion on the orchestra; it's just that the main attraction was Brahms's Fourth, a work that I love and know pretty well, and I was not sure the pleasure of hearing it performed live, probably not quite as well as on recordings, justified the expense (not that much) and the drive (a little over an hour). Desire to support the orchestra was one of the things that tipped me over to yes, go.
It was worth it. In spite of what I just said about knowing the Brahms, it may well be more than thirty years since I last heard it, possibly more. I think I listened to it a fair amount when I was in college and soon afterward, when my ears and my sensibility were young and fresh, and apparently it had really imprinted itself on me. I had forgotten just how much I love it...except for that last movement. I never have been touched by it. It's a passacaglia (a structure similar to a theme and variations, but with the underlying motive a bass or chordal movement, not a melody). And I remember thinking all those years ago that the problem must be that I simply didn't understand it. I don't think I ever made much effort to follow the changes of the form; the music just didn't touch me.
This time I really made a concerted effort to keep the pattern in mind, actually counting the measures and focusing on trying to keep the foundation in mind as a variety of structures were built atop it. That effort broke down about two-thirds of the way through--I don't know whether the pattern itself varies or I just couldn't keep up.
But that shouldn't matter. One shouldn't have to think about the structure of a piece in order to be affected by it. And, once more after all these years, it still doesn't touch me. That's okay, because the first three movements had me almost ecstatic. I remembered them more accurately than I expected. I remembered it so well, and liked it so much, that I almost feel that I don't need to hear it again, ever. Maybe now I should just listen to the fourth movement several times in a row, and see if anything happens.
Who, you may ask, is Caroline Shaw? She's a young composer of whom I had never heard before Saturday, but I'm sure going to hear more of her now. The first piece in the program was a to-me-forgettable overture by Weber. The second was a work for chorus and orchestra by Shaw, "In Common Time." And the third was Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."
I was entirely prepared to be bored at best, annoyed at worst, by the Shaw piece. Oh yeah, we know what to expect: some aimless and disconnected sounds, some pleasant and some not, maybe some pretentious notes about how it reflects the anxieties of our times etc. I would not have been at all surprised if it was said to be about climate change.
But it won me over, and then some. Yes, it's...odd to the ears of those who love, for instance, Brahms, but that's hardly a new thing. More deeply, there's the whole problem of modern music, as with modern poetry and painting, not simply being not very much like but also not really as good, by some semi-objective criteria, as older and more traditional classical music. It does not have either the technical or emotional reach of 19th (and some 20th) century music, just as most contemporary poetry does not come off very well in comparison with, for instance, Tennyson, or even Housman.
But this mostly wordless piece, which started out as pleasant, went deeper as it progressed, especially when the few bits of words came in: "Years ago...I forget...years to come...let them."
And what really iced the cake for me was that Shaw's work was followed without a break (this was announced beforehand) by the Mozart. The effect for me was profound, the radiant beauty of the second somehow resolving the restless longing of the first. Afterwards I went to the orchestra's Facebook page solely to offer my thanks to whoever it was who came up with the idea for that combination.
Here's "In Common Time." I did, I should say, find a few things about it a little off-putting: the clattering among the strings, for one, which sounded to me as if it were something more than col legno, striking of the strings with the wood of the bow. It seems gimmicky to me, not to mention ugly. And I could do without some of the vocal effects. Still, I like it.
Many or most Catholics, and I suppose all Catholics who have an interest in classical music, will recognize "Ave Verum Corpus."
I can imagine someone saying that the Mozart just proves the deficiencies of the Shaw. Well, what can I say?--I liked it, and I liked the combination. It was a memorable night.
I think there is in fact a good deal of interesting music being made by people trained in classical technique and sensibility. I put it that way because the word "classical" doesn't seem exactly applicable to the music itself. I'll have more to say about that sometime before too long.
For various logistical reasons we didn't go to the Easter Vigil at the cathedral this year, or even to our regular parish, but rather to a very small parish in a very small town a bit further away than our own.
Well, why not be specific? It was St. John the Baptist in Magnolia Springs (Alabama). I'd never been there before and I was impressed. I think it was not so long ago only a mission and a relatively poor parish, and the building is small and plain. But the interior has fairly recently been redecorated, and it's very appealing. Good taste can do a lot without a lot of money. The liturgy can be described as simple but passionate, in a good way. And it included a fair amount of Latin and a great deal of incense. I don't think the church holds more than a hundred people, and it was packed, so much so that my wife and I felt a little guilty about taking up space that some parishioner might have used. I think we were all accommodated, though.
I got the feeling that it's a very healthy parish. And that is undoubtedly in some large measure due to the young and very dedicated priest, Fr. Nick Napolitano. I've known him slightly for a while. He was a high school classmate of one of our children, and when he in seminary sometimes was an altar server in our Ordinariate Masses. He is fiercely--the word is not too strong--committed to his mission. I hope he can sustain it in the face of all the opposition, from without and within the Church, that will come to him, and from the risk which no doubt faces all priests of simply growing weary and jaded with the passage of time.
This link will take you to a video at the parish site of Fr. Nick discussing the visual features of the church. I had not noticed the bugs.
The young priests I've encountered in recent years are all similarly committed to the traditional mission of the Church, which makes them "conservative" in the confused mind of our time. And they are very brave. The orthodoxy is not surprising, because, as has been pointed out for decades, who would give up everything a priest has to give up for an ill-defined mission of which he is half ashamed? The bravery is almost true by definition now, because in the minds of many all priests are automatically suspected of child molestation and other crimes. And the accusation obviously gives a lot of pleasure to those who already hate the Church for other reasons. I certainly would have trouble walking around in public if I thought people were looking at me with that in mind. God give them strength.
Post-Lenten drinking update: I had given up my regular evening drink, usually a beer, for Lent. I did, as the questionable practice allows, give myself a Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon break. And I had a few lapses, some for social reasons, but didn't too very badly.
One thing I did not do during Lent was to sneak a little of this wonderful scotch. One of my children had brought it for the Christmas holidays, and there was a little left, which I have been saving for a special occasion. I thought Saturday night after the vigil was special enough.
Scotch is not my favorite whiskey, but this is something else. People talk about the "peaty" taste of scotch, and I guess it's a marker of its non-favorite-ness for me that I don't think I especially like that quality. And this has much less of it than most. I don't think I would ever have applied the term "fresh" to any other scotch, but it comes to mind here. All that "nose," "palate," etc., stuff on the label, which I have a hard time taking very seriously (which may just mean that I'm a clod) uses comparisons to various fruits, which, again, would never have occurred to me in relation to scotch, but which seemed justified. Not that it tastes fruity, but there's a lightness and brightness to the flavor which I don't associate with scotch.
I don't want to know how much it costs but I do know that it is not available in the state liquor stores here, which maybe is just as well. Happily, there is still another ounce or two in the bottle.
I also let alone during Lent another holdover from another offspring's visit: a couple of canned cocktails from TipTop Cocktails. Canned cocktails may sound like a terrible idea, but to my unsophisticated taste anyway they are extremely good. My son had brought an assortment, and one that I especially liked was the daquiri. I don't think I'd had a daquiri since I was in college (long ago). I have the impression that it's out of fashion. One of the company's mottos is "never too sweet," which was what made the daquiri better than I expected.
Unfortunately they are not available in Alabama. You can order them online in an package of eight for $40. I don't want to bother doing that, and shipping cost would probably be pretty high, but that's only $5 for a very good drink. So if store prices are around the same they are very much worth it.
As I have often mentioned, I have a peculiar attraction for offbeat and little-known music. One such that I found (at eMusic, of course) fifteen or twenty years ago was Voyager, an album by a group called Space Needle. A week or two ago something reminded me of an odd little track from that album, "Dreams." The lyric consists of one repeated line, which I heard as
In time you will know that dreams no longer come true.
It spoke to my condition, as they say: I was more melancholy than usual when I heard the album. But I had only heard it in the car. When I listened to it at home the other day I thought Wait--is she saying "that" or is she saying "bad"? I decided it was the latter. I searched for the lyrics online and found only one attempt at transcription, at one of those dodgy lyric sites, and whoever did it agrees. So:
In time you will know bad dreams no longer come true.
One of the composers on that disk of miscellaneous, indeed wildly heterogenous, classical music that I mentioned last week is Bartok. All six of his string quartets are there, and, as I also mentioned, the way the MP3 files are named means that the movements of the quartets are scattered among other pieces of music. The effect can be startling. The first two movements of the first quartet are immediately followed by the first movement of a sinfonia by J.A. Hasse. A more disconcerting sequence would have to involve, say, a bit of Berg's Wozzeck. I had never heard of Hasse before (yes, even though I own the album, Concertos for Two Flutes, on the Tuxedo label)--he was an 18th century composer, one of those well-known in his time but less so afterwards.
The little sinfonia (and I do mean little--it has five movements which all together occupy only a little over twelve minutes) is delightful, simple and very tuneful. Frankly, it was welcome after Bartok.
I don't really know what to make of Bartok. He's one of those composers whom I think I should like, but have not really warmed to. Back in my college days I acquired this LP of his Piano Concerto #2 and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion:
I don't remember, but I feel pretty safe in saying that the cover image was at least half-responsible for my buying the disk; surely that's a Marc Chagall painting. The other half was probably a general impression that Bartok was weird and modern and probably something I would like. But though I'm sure I listened to it at least half a dozen times back then, I never warmed up to it. And that's about all I can say about it now, as I don't think I've heard it since. And really: two pianos and percussion? Is that not in itself a description of an unpleasant experience?
I also recall hearing the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta back then, and liking it, but as far as I remember have not heard it since. And I also remember a middle-aged customer in the record shop where I worked at the time telling me that it gave her children nightmares.
The thing about the quartets, heard in the hodge-podge context of other music, which includes, at the other end of the scale, Schoenberg's twelve-tone Variations for Orchestra, is that they don't sound completely atonal and recklessly dissonant. At times (and remember this is based on hearing them while driving) they catch hold, so to speak, with me. And then they lose me again. I do want to pick one and listen to it attentively. Looking around for information on them, I ran across one person who ranks them with Beethoven's quartets. That's pretty intriguing. I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of others.
I ran across some remarks from Chesterton the other day in which he responded to a correspondent who advocated communal kitchens:
Would not our women be spared the drudgery of cooking and all its attendant worries, leaving them free for the higher culture?
The Chesterton piece says some things with which any Chesterton reader is familiar, especially the fallacy of supposing that freeing a woman from the drudgery of home so that she can engage in drudgery elsewhere. But what struck me most was the business about freeing her, or anyone, for "higher culture." This is an idea that has long had a great appeal for people who see history as a pretty steady advance in a pretty shallow concept of progress. I don't mean political progressives in particular in the sense of any particular set of political goals, but the utilitarian mindset which sees the advance of technology and personal freedom as good in themselves (which to a large degree they are), but has no concept, indeed actively avoids the question, of what these things are for.
I have a vague impression of having encountered those ideas in my youth, probably through science fiction, which in my youth was still dominated, at least as far as I encountered it, by the optimistic Progress Through Science and Reason school. I absorbed a vague picture of masses of people, maybe even all of humanity, freed from drudgery of all sorts, engaged in painting and music and poetry and philosophy, drifting around in a sort of haze of wise benevolence. (Something like that vision is portrayed in the absurd quasi-hippies of the TV show Moonhaven.)
Well, here we are. In science fiction, dystopia was just around the corner. And in real life the leisure obtained by the reduction of physical labor has given us a toxic sea of anti-culture: pornography, "reality" television, a crazy cult of spectator sports, an inarguable decline in standards of education and culture in general.
It's not all bad by any means, but what is the proportion of good or even not-bad to bad? What is the proportion of people who, having the freedom to do so, have chosen the enlightened life, as pictured in the old dream, over the pursuit of mere entertainment and pleasure? One out of ten? That seems too high. One out of fifty?
And: communal kitchens, presumably mandated and controlled by the government? I don't see why that would appeal to anyone. Except of course the people who just like mandates and control.
I'm not tough enough or self-denying enough to give up listening to music during Lent. But I do usually limit myself to classical music, and within that tend to favor works that are either explicitly religious (like Bach's liturgical music) or at least of a contemplative and reflective cast.
To that end I swapped the CD of miscellaneous pop music MP3s in my car player for one containing only classical music. All these CDs (dozens of them) were made ten-to-twenty years ago when hard drives were much smaller and I couldn't keep all the MP3 music I was acquiring on my computer, and so had to archive some of them to CD. The music is completely unorganized except that some disks are all popular music and some are all classical. The only thing the music on any one disk has in common is that one broad classification; it's just whatever needed to be archived at the moment.
One of the classical disks is in my car now, and the music on it is a real hodge-podge, including everything from baroque flute concertos to Schoenberg. Moreover, the files are not named in any consistent way (such as album name / track number), so, as the CD player reads them, a movement from a Hummel concerto may be followed by one of Schoenberg's Four Orchestral Songs. It can be startling.
The biggest surprise was a piece of Indian classical music. In the '60s, as we all know, there was something of a fad for Ravi Shankar's sitar music--he played at the Monterey Pop Festival. I have two or three of his LPs from that time, and I genuinely liked the music and continued to listen to it now and then long after the fashion had faded.
What came, unexpectedly, out of my car speakers the other day was recognizably the same basic sort of music as those albums, but with the noticeable difference that it included much lower notes than I had ever heard from the sitar. When I got home and looked up the album, I discovered that the instrument was not a sitar at all, but something called the surbahar, which I will very naively say might be to the sitar something like what the cello is to the violin.
I was immediately captivated. If you've ever listened to any of this kind of music you know that it involves a lot of what guitar players call "bending" notes: varying the pitch of a struck string by pushing or pulling the string sideways, raising its pitch in a sort of slide--I guess "glissando" is the technical term--while the note is sounding. It may be just a sort of twist of the basic note, or a vibrato. Or it may be full notes. Half-step bends are fairly easy, whole-step bends are harder, and a combination of light string and strong hand can even do a step and a half. (You can also do "pre-bends"--bending the string before it's plucked, so that the note slides down rather than up after it's initially sounded. This is harder because you have to know by sight or feel or habit exactly where to position the string--a difficulty which is the normal playing technique for the violin family, which is why you can't just pick up the violin and play tolerably, as you can with the guitar.) It's a powerful expressive device, pretty much essential for blues playing.
These plucked Indian instruments do the same thing but with immense precision, which I think includes formally defined microtones, and notes sustained for longer than I would have thought possible on a purely acoustic instrument. I've always liked it, but hearing it done on the lower tones of the surbahar makes it, to me at least, even more expressive, with long moaning voice-like glissandos that really tugged at the apparently sympathetic strings of my heart.
I had no memory of even owning this music, and made the lazy assumption that the album was some cheaply produced thing from the '50s or '60s, licensed by some low-rent American company from an Indian original, re-issued on LP back then with minimal care and documentation, and probably with even less care converted to MP3. Totally wrong. What I was hearing was the first of the two pieces on this album:
Far from being an old and poor-quality recording carelessly thrown into the electronic market, it was recorded in this century and originally released as a CD by a company, Arbiter Records, which has a very serious commitment to the music. You can read some detailed commentary on it here. And hear the whole album on YouTube.
I admit that by something over halfway through the 36-minute piece I was no longer paying very close attention. That's a long time for a single instrument and a piece which doesn't vary much harmonically or rhythmically. Also, it doesn't speed up to a climax in the way that I recall Shankar's music doing, which may have to do with the bigger instrument being less agile. This eventually made for a certain monotony, but I'll listen to it again soon.
And I see there are a number YouTube videos providing an overview of Indian musical techniques. I may be about to go down an Indian music rabbit hole.
I had planned to listen to Bruckner's symphonies again during Lent, justifying it partly by his being a Catholic whose music has definite spiritual intentions. So far I've only gotten through the First. I listened to them all some years ago (ten? not more than fifteen I think?) and didn't immediately recognize this one. But then I got to the third movement, which I very much did recognize. It's intense and loud: heavy. And I thought "that's really metal."
Afterwards, I wondered about that use of "metal" as an adjective. I was not surprised to learn that it's common enough that it may, if its use continues, get a place in dictionaries. It means, of course, loud, heavy, and intense, but more fundamentally, and not necessarily with respect to music alone, passion, toughness, honesty, courage, and refusal to surrender. It's almost a warrior sort of mentality. Maybe not even almost.
This is not metal:
I loved my husband and was happy with the life we built. But I had to end our marriage when I realized I'm a lesbian
You can read more if you want to, but it's not really worth the bother. I suppose it might get a metal point or two for the attempt to be authentic. But there's no passion in it. It's more like being bored with chamomile tea and deciding to switch to rose hip for a while. What it says about contemporary ideas of marriage among a certain class of people pretty much goes without saying.
I've been meaning to mention this novel, and putting it off because I felt that it deserved a fuller treatment than I had time to give it. But today I'm giving up. I have a busy few days coming up, and rather than put it off again I'm just going to say a little and then direct you to more extensive reviews.
"On Mondays I cleaned the rectory for the good of my soul." The speaker is Kirsty Sain, a widow in her...well, I'm not exactly sure about her age, but let's call it early elderly, as she seems to have been an adult in the early '70s. The next sentence suggests the way the story is going to open out from this simple and even dull routine: "I did it, too, in those days, for the good of Father Schuyler, who was young and untried." As the story goes on she's going to be called upon for the good of several others, including a most unlikely cat (but don't worry, this is not a cutesy cat story).
The rectory belongs to the small Catholic parish in a small North Carolina town in which Kirsty has lived for many years, for most of her adult life, but where she has never entirely fitted in: "stranded on the wrong side of the world," she says of her arrival there as a newlywed. She had grown up in the Shetland Islands, and I have to say I was initially puzzled by that as a fictional choice; it seemed arbitrary. But it works, the stormy, isolated, half-Nordic environment of one of the smaller islands prefiguring the isolation of her life in the U.S.: married, but childless as a result of a disaster in her youth, since her husband's death almost entirely alone, and not uncomfortable that way.
I was happy, or something like it. All my life I had lived among people. Now, although perhaps my days sound dull, I was well enough satisfied with my own company.
There is nothing very dramatic in the way she is slowly drawn out of that somewhat isolated self-sufficiency. Small occasions in which she is needed arise, and she responds, somewhat passively, somewhat resignedly, maybe reluctantly but not unwillingly. One such is her involvement with an anarchic Catholic family with children of such number that Kirsty has difficulty fixing the exact count in her mind. This family encounters great suffering, which Kirsty cannot undo or heal. But she is stalwart in doing what she can.
Before I turn this over to serious reviewers, I have to say that this is one of those books where the simple act of reading, sentence by sentence, is enjoyable. I cannot say that about, for instance, Dostoevsky (though maybe that would be different if I could read Russian). Kirsty's narration is often wryly funny, often poignant. Her account of being photographed for the parish directory:
On my appointed day, I had shown up in a spirit of grudging resignation, to be jollied intolerably by the photographer and to enter my name and address on the appropriate paper form. In that issue of the directory you can find me still, looking every inch the retired lady berserker, my faded hair standing out in puffs either side of my face. My expression betrays the itchiness of my best moss-green wool dress and the lameness of the photographer's jokes. I am recorded in those pages as the worst species of witch, who eats children for breakfast and enjoys every mouthful.
The "berserker" reference is to her northern ancestors.
And another thing: one of the great pleasures of Sally Thomas's book of poems Motherland is her skill with the visual. (I wrote about it here.) That's very present in the novel:
The October days looked caught in amber. Amber was the color of the land as it rose and fell beneath the high, dry sky. At night the moon rounded and rode above the soft edge of the trees, breathing its calm blue light. The word at this time of the year felt enormous, tall and wide and empty.
It's from Wiseblood Books, by the way, who are doing great work, and if you want to buy it you might want to order it directly from them.
I had never heard of the first and last of those two publications. The last one, Fare Forward, is intriguing. The phrase is from the "Four Quartets," and the magazine is
a Christian review of ideas founded in 2012 by a group of young Ivy League graduates. Trained by our time in the campus journal movement (now known as the Augustine Collective), we set out to start a publication that would be creedally orthodox, intentionally ecumenical, politically unaffiliated, and welcoming to all readers, regardless of faith or lack thereof.
Good for them. I cannot help saying that any group calling itself a "collective" is automatically a little suspect and/or ridiculous in my eyes. But they're young and probably don't have the same associations with the word that I do.
Another note on Big Star: I listened, not very attentively, to Alex Chilton's solo album Like Flies On Sherbet. I'm not sure whether my impulse to give it a fair chance (i.e. several hearings) is strong enough to overcome my wish not to hear it again. Either way, I can't imagine that it could ever be anything but a big disappointment compared to Third / Sister Lovers or for that matter the other two original Big Star albums. AllMusic says it "isn't quite the car wreck it once appeared to be." Praise can't get much fainter than that.
If you don't know that Big Star is a band, you probably don't care. If you do know, you probably have your own opinions, and might or might not be interested in hearing mine. But what's the point of having a blog if you don't opine on what interests you?
Big Star, by the way, is also the name of a regional grocery store chain. I've always supposed that name of the chain suggested the band name, with the fact that they were a brand new band whom nobody had ever heard of making it funny. (Wikipedia confirms this.)
A capsule history of Big Star: The band was formed in Memphis. In 1967 sixteen-year-old Alex Chilton became, in fact, a big star, but not under his own name. As the singer in The Box Tops, he had a hugely successful Top 40 hit, "The Letter." By 1970 he had left that band. In 1971 he formed Big Star with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel. They recorded two albums for Stax Records, which were well reviewed but not well promoted or distributed and were commercial flops. By 1974 the band had effectively broken up. Chilton and Stephens recorded a third album in 1975. It was deemed commercially non-viable and not even released until ca. 1978. The band, their three albums, and Chilton himself became legendary, the other members less so.
I never even heard of them till the '80s, when R.E.M. named them as an influence, and it was another twenty years before I heard them. A friend sent me a mixtape (way back when) of the third album, or, more accurately, his selection of eight or ten tracks from an album which contains as many as nineteen, depending on which release it is. Before I say anymore about that I'll back up and mention the other two.
I figured that the title of the first album, #1 Record, reflects the same sense of humor that got the band its name. I didn't realize until a few days ago when I read an interview with Jody Stephens that the title of the second one, Radio City, does, too. There was at the time, maybe still is, a common figure of speech in which the word "city" was a sort of emphasis: "It was cop city," i.e., there were a lot of police there. So "radio city" was exactly what the first album had not been, i.e. heard on the radio.
#1 Record / Radio City is the title given to a two-CD set of the first two albums, and combining them was a good idea. They're so similar that only someone who was already familiar with them separately would notice where one ends and the other begins. I guess I've heard the whole set at least five times now, twice within the past couple of months, so my opinion is probably pretty well fixed. And I'm going to have to damn with faint praise.
It is praise, though. It's only damning when compared to the wild enthusiasm with which many people, and most critics, speak of these two albums. This is very good music; I just don't think it's absolutely great, landmark, essential, desert-island music. I'm perfectly willing to chalk that up to personal taste. I can point to one specific feature of many of the tracks that bothers me: a jerky, stop-and-start quality. The first track of #1 Record, "Feel," is as good an example as any.
There's a lot of Beatles influence in that song as in many, especially the backing harmonies, and sometimes specific guitar tones, and those horns in the break, which remind me of some particular Beatles song that I can't quite place (I'm not a true Beatlemaniac). It's all extremely well crafted, but I don't love it. And that applies to at least half the tracks on the two albums. The lyrics are so-so, and there aren't a great many memorable tunes among the up-tempo tracks, though the riffs are catchy, as in "Feel." I find that the songs I like most are the simpler ones. And as for tunes, and just for overall appeal, "September Gurls" [sic], which appears near the end of Radio City, is probably my favorite of the whole two albums.
("I was your Butch"--Butch was a dog.) I should also mention "Try Again," a poignant song about sinning repeatedly but never giving up. I could and may create a playlist of my favorite ten or so tracks from these albums, and that might add up to a desert island choice.
But then there's that third album. I spent some time with it over the past couple of weeks, and now it's definitely on my list of all-time greats. To get straight to the point: it's like Astral Weeks or Nick Drake's best work. The means by which it accomplishes this, as with the others, is a musical and lyrical package that's unlike anything else, and that somehow creates an emotional world of great depth and intensity. And just as with Morrison and Drake, some people just don't react to whatever it is that seems so magical to others and makes fanatical devotees of them.
It turns out, as I mentioned earlier, I had never actually heard the whole thing. My friend had selected the best tracks, certainly, but the inclusion of a few others, and some attentive listening, made me appreciate it all the more. It's not very much like the other Big Star albums, and that's partly because it isn't really a Big Star album at all, but rather an Alex Chilton album, with the participation of Jody Stephens and a host of session musicians and other guests. Chilton and Stephens were all that remained of Big Star by the mid-1970s when the album was recorded.
Not all that much remains of the Big Star sound, either. There's Chilton's voice, of course. But there's relatively little of the basic guitar-pop sound that characterizes Big Star. Instead, there's a wide array of instruments, including on several songs some lovely and/or strange string arrangements. The lewd-sounding title of "Stroke It, Noel" puzzled me, as it's a pretty and delicate song. Then I noticed in the credits that the violin is played by Noel Gilbert. The title is indicative of a sort of self-subverting spirit that appears now and then on the album. Is "Jesus Christ" really the odd Christmas song it seems to be, or is it a joke? How much of "Thank You, Friends" is sincere, and how much is sarcasm directed at those who "made this all so...probable"? The ellipses are for a distinct pause in which your mind expects "possible," only to hear "probable" in what seems distinctly a sneer.
The album is strange to say the least, the songs veering from celebratory to anguished and almost disoriented--maybe not even almost. One reviewer says it's the sound of a band breaking up, but it had already broken up. Is it the sound of Alex Chilton breaking up? Some of the songs sound that way. But there are also several love songs which are sweet and beautiful and devoid of anger, irony, or bitterness--"Blue Moon," especially, stands out. Part of the answer seems to be that Chilton was in the middle of an intense, stormy, and ultimately failed love affair. Jim Dickinson, the producer, said the album is about deteriorating relationships, and that seems as good a summation as any.
It's intense, beautiful, and different from anything else I've ever heard. Trying to describe music is frustrating and not all that useful, so I'll include one song here, with the proviso that it shouldn't be taken as typical of the album, which I'm not sure has any "typical."
One of the oddities of the album is that it's been released several times with significant differences in both the selection and the sequencing of tracks. Even the title, which you may have noticed I haven't mentioned, is questionable. The most frequently seen is Third/Sister Lovers. It was released under each and now both of those titles. Third is self-explanatory. Sister Lovers is not, as you might fear, some perversity, but a reference to the fact that Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters.
The double title belongs to what is apparently the definitive edition, in what Dickinson says is the originally intended sequencing. That's important, because putting, for instance, "Thank You, Friends" at the end creates a very different experience from ending with "Take Care," as sweet and sad a goodbye song as you'll ever hear.
That edition, however, also contains four bonus tracks, only one of which, "Dream Lover" (not the Bobby Darin song from the '50s), really belongs with the rest of the album. The others may or may not be interesting in themselves but don't fit. So make yourself a playlist, maybe putting "Dream Lover" somewhere in the middle, but put "Take Care" at the end.
There's a very well-done and very interesting documentary called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me in which someone relates Alex saying "Music is something I can take or leave." It seems significant, because his career after the third Big Star seems to have been somewhat desultory. I haven't come across anyone saying that his later work is desert island material.
This is another trip into the only partially explored territory of music I bought in MP3 format when it was very inexpensive at eMusic.com, and I could experiment in a way that I never could have before.
His Name Is Alive: Livonia
To some of us, the phrase "4AD in the 1980s" suggests magic. 4AD, in case you don't know, is the name of a record company, and in the 1980s it released some of the most wonderful popular music ever made, including most of the work of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. And that continued into the 1990s and beyond. (I'm not dismissing later releases, but I haven't heard many of them.) Most likely it was those associations that were responsible for my having bought no less than seven albums and/or EPs by His Name Is Alive, a band I had not previously heard of.
I decided to start with their first album, Livonia, released in 1990. Livonia is the name of the town in Michigan where the apparent mastermind of the project, Warren Defever, grew up. From what I've read "project" is a better term than "band," as it seems to involve a constantly shifting cast of musicians with Defever as the only constant. You might expect--at any rate I expected--that an album named for the midwestern home town of the writer would be a rootsy sort of thing, an Americana sort of thing, straightforward light rock or folk-rock with lyrics reflecting on the writer's origins. But it's every bit as other-worldly and mysterious as anything else in the 4AD lineup.
If you aren't listening closely much of it will seem simpler than it is, and fairly uniform throughout: a single female voice, usually with a noticeable amount of reverb, singing pretty tunes with lyrics that tend to run from the vague to the cryptic, though sometimes evocative. But when you turn it up and listen more closely you hear an elaborate background of mysterious and distant sounds: voices, instruments, noises.
It's difficult to pick one track as a good example, but this one, "If July," will do.
They follow me here then I know what I have If I swallowed it whole they'll show me the path Pretending to pray this is missed once a day Please allow faith to find what's new is her first name
I look forward to hearing more of their work. According to AllMusic, music meriting at least four stars has continued to be released under this name until at least 2015. Of the more than twenty albums listed, the most recent I have is Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth (I love the title), from 2001. There are over twenty albums altogether. There's bound to be some great stuff in there.
One song on Livonia, "How Ghosts Affect Relationships," begins with a line from Yeats, "I dreamed that one had died in a strange place," from "Dream of Death." I wonder if I missed other literary allusions in the lyrics.
Faith and the Muse: Elyria
This is not a 4AD release. But the second song on the album, "Sparks," certainly sounds like it could have been. Specifically, it sounds remarkably like the Cocteau Twins, so much so that you might mistake it for them if you heard it from across a room. But it's the only track that sounds like that. The rest of the album is as extravagantly varied as Livonia is consistent.
If it fits into any box, it would be the one labelled "Eclectic." It could quite justifiably be called progressive rock, if that term is meant to include complexity of any kind, not just the instrumental virtuosity with which it's often associated. It's big, romantic, dramatic, and ambitious, encompassing some fairly hard rock, the complex artsy work (musical and lyrical) of women like Kate Bush and Loreena McKennit, folk music (including one actual folk song, "The Unquiet Grave") and vaguely medieval-renaissance classical music. Goth and darkwave need to be mentioned in there, too. I've seen some photos of them in which they're seriously, almost comically, goth.
One remarkable track is a song by the Elizabethan composer-poet Thomas Campion (an old favorite of mine), "When To Her Lute Corrina Sings." The tune, which I think is not Campion's, is straightforward, but the accompaniment is very dissonant piano and cello (I think) that sounds like it could have come from "Pierrot Lunaire" or some other early 20th century work.
Possibly the most effective description of the music is that it sounds like what you might expect of someone who looks and dresses like this (and is an extremely gifted musician).
(From Wikimedia Commons)
Why, knowing nothing much about this band, did I buy four albums by them fifteen or more years ago? I suspect it had something to do with their name. That's intriguing, isn't it? Faith and the Muse. Maybe I thought they dealt with Christian themes, especially as one of the albums is called Evidence of Heaven. But there's a simple explanation for the name and it has nothing to do with the noun or the concept "faith": the group is primarily two people, William Faith and Monica Richards, the latter (pictured above) presumably being the muse.
I'm not including a video clip because to pick one would not be truly representative. But there are plenty on YouTube. Some may find the music pretentious and overblown. Personally I like it very much.
Speaking of music, the past couple of weeks have seen the deaths of two well-known figures from the '60s, Jeff Beck and David Crosby. Beck, if you don't already know, and if you don't already know you probably don't care, was one of that trio of flash guitar players who passed through the Yardbirds, and later achieved personal fame as very visible members of much better-known bands (Cream, Led Zeppelin), and later on their own. I strongly suspect that he was, in the end, the best of the three, as the other two (Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page) seemed to more or less rest on their accomplishments, musically speaking, of the '60s and '70s, while Beck continued to be adventurous. (By "best" I mean produced more worthwhile music over a longer span of time.) Much of his work was in the jazz-rock fusion genre, which is definitely not a favorite of mine. But if you fancy electric guitar at all you should hear, really should hear, Live At Ronnie Scott's.
Hear and maybe see, as it's available as both audio and video. The benefit of the latter is that you get to see Beck and a very impressive band at work; the drawback is that Beck has some annoying physical mannerisms. And, as he was 64 at the time, I suspect that black hair is not all his. And why is a guy at retirement age still wearing that sleeveless shirt-vest thing? It's funny, really--as adventurous as he was in his music, he seemed to want to continue to look exactly like he did in 1970 or so.
Guitarists and guitar fans sometimes talk about the great music Jimi Hendrix might have made if he hadn't died so young. Maybe he would have. Or maybe he would have been one of those '60s stars who faded after the age of 30 or so. That's more or less how I think of David Crosby: for me he is significant mainly as a member of the Byrds. Personally I prefer their work and Buffalo Springfield's to anything I've ever heard by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and/or Young, together or separately, with the exception of some of Young's solo work. CSN and CSN&Y made some undeniably brilliant music, but I never really cared about it in a way I did that of their earlier bands.
This brief obituary of Crosby at The American Conservative contains a strikingly accurate summary of what happened to the hippies: "the counterculture’s collapse into Clintonite politics." I can't think of anyone I knew from those days who isn't now a conventional, often near-fanatical, Democrat.
I was working on a post earlier today but didn't have time to finish it, and may not tomorrow, so, briefly:
A remark from a priest seen on Facebook on Thursday: "I thought I was having an epiphany this morning but it was transferred to Sunday."
This evening my wife and I were shamefully late for Mass. We deserved to be escorted to the front pew and mocked, but fortunately that's not done. We sat on a bench in the lobby with a woman and a girl, presumably mother and daughter and presumably also having been quite late to Mass, though not as late as we were. (I know "lobby" is not the right word, but this is a fairly modern building and that's what it feels like. Fortunately, for the kind of architecture it is, the building is not unpleasant.) The doors were closed but there's a speaker in the lobby which is wired to the priest's microphone. That made for a slightly odd effect, since we could hear the priest very well, and during the hymns a few voices from people who were especially close to the priest or especially loud, including one especially loud but not very tune-capable one, and not much else. The choir was audible but muffled.
Feeling that we really ought not to receive, we remained where we were during communion. During that ten minutes or so I couldn't hear anything much except the soft near-whisper of the priest: Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ. I could see people leaving and returning to the pews, including a little boy who looked no more than eight and is in a wheel chair and seemed eager. So many people, so many unique little worlds full of unique and yet universal thoughts and cares and hopes and pleasures.
It was quite beautiful to kneel there while that was going on, to watch the people, to hear Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ, on and on, like little waves splashing quietly on a shore.
The choir sang "What Child Is This?" As you probably know, the tune is an old English folk one called "Greensleeves," and no words of mine can do justice to its beauty, which will last as long as music does. But I had never given any thought to the English words written for it. I had unthinkingly supposed that they were traditional, too, or at any rate anonymous. But they were written in the 19th century by William Chatterton Dix, and they are extremely well-wrought. Since I was old enough to notice and understand them I've loved these two lines:
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here The silent word is pleading.
I think it's that paradox of the silent word that gives me such a sense of reverence bordering on awe. "Fear"? Isn't that out of place? No, not if we really grasp what's going on. And I always notice that it's "Christian," singular. Not a collective but you, me.
Having had such a great experience with #6 a couple of weeks ago, I was eager to hear these. As with the Pathetique, I had not, as far as I can recall, heard them since I was in my early 20s. So I did, and it was a mistake.
It was too soon. It was almost impossible that these two works would come up to the level that had just been set by their younger sibling. There is nothing at all wrong with them. They are both good, maybe great, works, and maybe at the right time I would have found, or in the future will find, them as moving as I did the 6th. But as it was they just struck me as being similar but not as good.
It was like falling desperately in love with someone you met only briefly in another town or another country, with which you have also fallen in love, then going home and expecting the next attractive girl you meet to bowl you over in the same way. It's not likely to happen that way.
For what it's worth, though, here are a few impressions:
I must have listened to the Fourth a good many times in my youth, because it was instantly and deeply familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I wonder if the opening fanfare has been used in some movie or TV show. And I liked it a lot, particularly that mostly-pizzicato third movement. But under the circumstances it seemed like a lesser foreshadowing of the 6th. As someone noted in a comment on the post about the 6th, the 4th, in contrast, ends on a note of triumph rather than despair. At the moment that comes across to me as...well, it wouldn't be at all fair to call it a defect, but less powerful, anyway. It does not speak to my condition. Or not as powerfully.
The Fifth, on the other hand, I didn't recognize at all. I listened to it once, fairly attentively, and thought "This is objectively good. I recognize that these are beautiful melodies, potent crescendos. Why am I not responding?" A few days later I gave it another try: put the LP on, listened to the first side (first two movements), and decided I had to let it go. This girl is lovely and sweet and intelligent, but she can't replace my lost love. It's not her, it's me. I must not lead her on. So I put the record back in its sleeve. Someday, at least several months from now, I'll take it out again,
One odd thing: at points during both symphonies I found myself thinking "this sounds like ballet music." I guess what I meant was that it sounds like Tchaikovsky. But I don't remember having that thought during the Sixth.
The performances, by the way, are by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I can't find a date on the box (it's a set of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies) but the packaging says mid-'60s to me.
Here's another recent discovery from the embarrassingly large number of recordings I acquired some time ago and never really listened to. Once again I put a CD full of MP3 files (over a hundred tracks) in my car player and listened to them one or two at a time as I ran little errands around town. Since I don't commute anymore it takes a while to get through one of these discs, and they usually have some surprises, if only due to the odd juxtapositions: they were originally made as backups, and I just threw whatever I hadn't yet backed up onto them (this was at least fifteen years ago). This disc, for instance, includes some black metal, some indie rock, some electronica--and some shoegaze, including this band, Should.
I had no memory of ever having heard this music before. There are four tracks from them on this disc, and this is my favorite. Yes, it sounds very much like Slowdive--very good Slowdive--but the other three tracks don't; i.e. they aren't copycats. I immediately went to Bandcamp and bought the entire album.
But I haven't listened to it yet.
They've only put out four albums over a period of twenty-five years or so. Judging by what I've heard they're definitely worth further listening. The title of this song, "The Great Pretend," from their 2011 album Like A Fire Without Sound, is also the title of their most recent (2014) album.
I liked this symphony a lot when I was young, late teens and early twenties. But as far as I can remember I never heard it after that. There was no particular reason for that, though for various reasons with which I won't bore you I'm not sure I had a recording of it after that period of my life. At any rate--again, as far as I can remember--I had not heard it for well over forty years when, a week or so ago, I had a sudden desire to hear it again.
Oh my goodness. It immediately shot up into the highest levels of my personal favorites among the 19th century symphonies. I won't say it's at the top, but it's certainly way up there. I think it's a greater work than I thought back in my youth. I've always tended to think of Tchaikovsky as a bit of a softy, the writer of great melodies and producer of spectacles, but maybe not the most profound of composers. Well, whatever justification, if any, that general view might have, it certainly doesn't apply here.
Is it wrong to equate profundity with gloom? Yes, if you put it that simply. But life produces an undeniable bias in that direction. Is it an error to maintain that tragedy is more profound than comedy? No, not if you stipulate that you're thinking of earthly life in itself, absent the promises of revelation.
This symphony certainly gives us a tragic view of life. It begins in sadness and ends with what I can only interpret as death, with the only consistently somewhat upbeat movement being the third, and that one is certainly not without its stresses, more agitated than happy. And the finale: "Adagio lamentoso," indeed. Tchaikovsky died a week or so after its premier. There was a lot of speculation about his death, with some claiming that it was suicide. You can read about that at Wikipedia, but I'm not sure it's worth your trouble. Better to read about the symphony itself.
The recording I now have is not the one I recall from college. That one was by Toscanini, and had a picture of the conductor on the cover, which was responsible for the fact that I have a tendency to imagine Tchaikovsky as looking like Toscanini. The one I have now may have been part of the Fr. Dorrell trove. If not, I must have picked it up for little or nothing at Goodwill or some other place where a lot of LPs ended up when CDs took over. It's a 1958 RCA Living Stereo recording, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony. And as far as I'm concerned there's no need for another one. I don't know what connoisseurs think of it, but I can't imagine a better performance or recording. I can't think of a better word for the performance than "taut," which such an emotionally extravagant work needs. Let's add "precise," as well, which it also needs. The sound quality is limited by the technology of the times, but within those limits it's spectacular, and I don't think any improvement in clarity in a digital recording could improve its electric quality.
Good thing Anglophone musicians and critics never decided to translate that semi-official title. "Pathetic Symphony" just doesn't work.
This is my latest find from the music I acquired years ago and never really listened to. The name led me to expect, well, club music. I'm not sure what I mean by that--something in the general direction of electronic dance music, I guess, with heavy beats and probably no great endowment of melody and lyrical depth; maybe something in the trip-hop line, but less interesting. And at first I thought that's what I was going to hear: the first thirty seconds are so like Portishead as to seem a copy or even a quotation. The whole song, "Love In December," could be described as a less dramatic, less quirky, less elaborate, and brighter Portishead-sort-of-thing.
But overall it's something different. The next song has a breezy, vaguely 60s-ish vibe, and the album as a whole is what I think of, unpejoratively, as a girl album: pretty, dreamy, subdued, reflective, introspective, wistful, with lyrics mostly about love, lost or found or unhappy. The tunes are memorable--I can't listen to it without having one song playing in my head for a while afterward, and it's not always the same one. The trip-hop instrumental atmosphere returns on "Say A Prayer," but for the most part the sound is more conventional. And that, again, is not a pejorative, because the straightforward unobtrusive arrangements are perfect for the material. It occurs to me as I write this to compare the album to some of The Innocence Mission's work, though the sensibility is very different.
It's a brief album, only thirty-one minutes, and there's not a wasted moment on it, not a second that isn't enjoyable. I do wish they had written more of the 51-second "London."
Here's "Hope For Winter," a representative track:
The band is/are a duo from Sweden. This album, their third, came out in 2001, and they have continued to put out albums regularly since then, for a total of ten, and eight of them have four-star reviews from AllMusic. The singer, who I assume is also the main lyricist, at least, if not the songwriter, is no longer a girl. I'll be interested in hearing how they've developed.
Some months ago I picked up Humphrey Carpenter's biography of W.H. Auden from the discard shelf at the local library. That it was there is a sad state of affairs, and I almost made it sadder when, after a few months of seeing it on the shelf and leaving it alone, and under a self-imposed mandate to get rid of books that I'm pretty sure I will never read, I decided that I probably didn't really want to read five hundred or so pages about Auden's life. I'm generally unenthusiastic about biographies of artists, and Auden is not my at the top of my list of favorite poets (high, but not at the top), though several of his poems are near the top of that list. So I decided to throw it back into the library's giveaway pile and hope someone else would give it a good home.
But before doing that I leafed through it, read a few bits and pieces here and there, and decided it seemed interesting after all, and that if nothing else I'd like to read about Auden's conversion to Christianity. That required getting some of the background, so in the end I decided to keep the book at least long enough to read the whole thing.
I'm glad I did. I'm less than halfway through it, and am finding it quite interesting for the most part, though like most biographies it occasionally frequently goes into more detail than I care to follow.
For six months or so in 1935-36, when Auden was in his late twenties, he worked in the Film Unit of England's postal service. I know, that sounds very strange--why did the post office have a film unit? But it did, and it made a documentary called Night Mail about the train that made a nightly mail run from London to several cities in Scotland. Auden wrote some verse for part of it, and Benjamin Britten provided music.
On YouTube there are several clips of the few minutes that include Auden's poem:
Several of the YouTube commenters say that it's an early form of rap. They sort of have a point.
I'd really like to see the whole film, which is less than half an hour long and which, on the basis of that clip, is very poetic in a very 20th century inter-war period way. But the only place I can find it is at the British Film Institute's streaming service, and I don't want to see it badly enough to subscribe.
"Inter-war period." What a ghastly thing to say, but it really is a reasonable way to describe the 1920s and '30s.
I'm about two thirds of the way through this three-part Netflix documentary on the 1999 attempt by some of the original Woodstock promoters to revive, twenty-five years later, the glory that was Woodstock in 1969. I was vaguely aware of the 1999 festival, saw news reports that it had not gone very well, and that was about the extent of my notice of it. But apparently it was much worse than I had realized.
I have a pretty jaundiced view of the original, and am of the opinion that Woodstock was not really Woodstock until the movie and the soundtrack album came out. My college roommate at the time had attended, and had no particular illusions about it: "A lot of people doing drugs in the mud and listening to music coming from a distant stage." According to him, it was not the hippie bands that got the most enthusiastic reception, but the good-time funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The movie made the myth. But though it may not have been the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (or maybe it was, and maybe that's not necessarily a great thing) it was not a trainwreck.
The further I get from the '60s counter-culture, the more negative my view of it has become. How dense did one have to be to believe that peace and love are the natural and probably inevitable result of turning people loose to do what they really feel like doing? The film features interviews with promoters, employees, and attendees who emphasize that the whole thing was badly planned from the beginning. And I have no doubt that it was. But the explanation for the fact that things turned so dark has to take into account the change in American culture, particularly in pop music, over the thirty years between the two Woodstocks.
It seems to me that this is a much meaner country than it was in the late '60s. I won't explore that question in detail at the moment, but I think it's a valid generalization to say that although there was certainly plenty of meanness prior to 1970, it was not as generally diffused and intense as it is now. The political and cultural polarization which are so much a part of life now was just taking shape at the end of the '60s. And there is no question that by 1999 there was a whole lot of violent rage in popular music that was not there in 1969.
In 1999 various forms of extremely angry metal or metal-influenced music were quite popular--nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. If you've never heard these bands, or, even more convincing, seen them perform, watch this clip of Limp Bizkit's Woodstock '99 performance. You won't be the least bit surprised that the festival ended in violence. This was the only the second day. Things would get worse.
There is no pleasure to be had from watching this documentary, but as a cultural artifact it's fascinating. I don't think the particular kind of rage on exhibit here is still as much a part of pop music as it was then, but from what I occasionally hear it doesn't look as though the change represents anything I would call progress.
I mean the 1970s, especially the mid-to-late '70s, for pop music. Of course there was a great deal of excellent music being made at the time, but most of it didn't make it onto top-40 radio. Because of my circumstances at the time, I didn't hear much else, and for the most part it was pretty grim.
I hated every song in this list, with the partial exception of Ringo's "You're Sixteen." Ringo did not, as the video seems to assume, write the song. It was a hit for somebody or other in the '50s, and it was not the only song of the time that saw nothing wrong with the singer being in love with a sixteen-year-old girl. (See the sweet "Sixteen Candles.") Many or most people got married before they were out of their teens back then. I agree that it's creepy for a middle-aged man to be singing it, but the song itself is not intrinsically awful.
I may have miscounted but I think there are only nine songs here.
Although I liked what I had heard of this band, I hadn't really given them a close listen until recently, when I finally followed up on Rob G's praise of them here. I had heard some of their self-titled first album back when it was released in 2006. Those were the glory days of cheap MP3s, and the two tracks I have, "Auburn and Ivory," and "Master of None," were probably free. I liked them well enough but, apparently, not enough to buy the album. Here's "Master of None":
A few years later I heard a track, "Norway," from their second album, Teen Dream, and it was similar. Apparently I liked it better, because I flagged it with four stars. Still, I didn't buy the album. I may have intended to, but I was trying to drink from a firehouse of music, and didn't follow up on everything that I liked.
I mention this history because one of the interesting things about the band is that they are still working in recognizably the same basic style, and it only got better, at least up to the point where I've listened to them: Bloom from 2012 and Thank Your Lucky Stars from 2015. I've had these for a while, but, as I mentioned, had not given them a serious listen. The production has grown more lush, melodies more sweeping and memorable, the instrumentation more varied, the vocals more powerful, assured, and versatile. But it's recognizably the same band, working in the same slow, dreamy style. Here's "Myth," the opening track of Bloom:
And "Majorette," the opener of Thank Your Lucky Stars:
Well, I'm sold. I like these two albums immensely. There is not much to be said for ranking one over the other in any sort of detached critical way. My personal preference is for Lucky Stars, but I think it's a matter of personal taste, and I might well change my mind, depending on which one I'm listening to.
It's a rich, spacious sound, dreamy but grounded. Tempos are rarely quicker than a sort of andante. I've heard it described as ethereal but I think it's more earthy than that. It's a very electronic sound, but without being, on the the one hand, cold, as in the effects seemingly deliberately sought by synth-pop bands, or, on the other hand, simply canned, the way the bits of contemporary pop I hear tend to sound--calculated, like canned laughter. The presence of electric guitars that sound like guitars helps.
It's basically a two-person band consisting of Victoria LeGrand, the vocalist, and Alex Scally. Apart from the vocals, I don't have any idea who's responsible for what, though my guess is that LeGrand is the main lyricist, as they're somehow very feminine-sounding. I don't know who's responsible for the big heart-grabbing melodies. I do know that LeGrand's rich warm voice, which can be soft and pretty or big and strong, is the centerpiece of the sound, and a lesser or different vocalist would make for lesser or different work. Probably lesser, I would guess.
The lyrics are, to my taste, a little on the weak side, mostly somewhat vague if not cryptic references to (presumably) private situations. However, they don't suffer from a defect which I noticed in another album I was listening to recently (more about that one later): they remain fairly concrete, even if their apparent connection to personal relationships is obscure; they don't discuss, but feel via concrete images--in the best 20th century style, I suppose you could say.
Beach House's style is so distinctive that it's a small miracle Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally continue to find ways to keep their music fresh.
They do indeed, and I'm looking forward to hearing their more recent work.
The image in the "Majorette" video is cropped way down for some reason. It's the cover of Lucky Stars, and here's the full cover, which I'm including mainly because I find it so charming:
When I first saw it, I thought Oh, a picture of Victoria LeGrand as a child--that's sweet. That was immediately followed by You dummy, that looks to be from the '50s. You're in your boomer time trap again: LeGrand of course is of my children's generation. Turns out the picture is of her mother. And turns out that they're a distinguished French musical family: Michel Legrand is Victoria's uncle, and her aunt, Christina, was a part of the Swingle Singers, who made a name for themselves in the '60s with jazzy a capella arrangements of classical works. I had not thought about them for quite a long time, but discovering this relationship caused me to give them another listen. And they're still good. (Contrary to my initial supposition, the name "Swingle" does not refer to the swing in their arrangements, but, by happy chance, was the surname of the man, Ward Swingle, who, so to speak, invented them.)
One of the tags which both AllMusic and Wikipedia attach to the group is is "dream pop," which is also the description applied to the Lynch/Cruise/Badalamenti sound, of which I have often spoken here. In a fairly broad way Beach House is similar, but much less dark and weird. But the last track on Lucky Stars, "Somewhere Tonight," would fit right in. I mean, the title alone suggests it.
Kyle Smith of National Review on Radiohead's OK Computer:
[Radiohead] don’t seem to grasp that music has to fit in someplace, to play some purpose. It goes with walking (the Beatles), working (Bach), shirking (Yacht rock), driving (the Eighties station), imbibing (country), getting up (pop), getting down (R & B), working out (hard rock, rap), and possibly even dancing (I wouldn’t know).
If I were an under-forty online female, I would say something like "I can't even." (Or maybe that would be an under-forty female of five years ago, as the fashionable slang may have changed by now. I don't recall having heard that recently.) The jewel in that list is that Bach is for "working." No, Bach is either for listening with the deepest attention you can manage to beauty whose very existence brings tears to your eyes, or, in the devotional works, for a prayer-like state of meditation on Christian themes. Or sometimes both.
Smith is listed as "critic at large" for National Review, and is the theater critic for The New Criterion. He's an entertaining writer, and his theater criticism always sounds intelligent and plausible to me, though I have not seen and never will see any of the productions he reviews. But I certainly won't take what he says about music very seriously from now on.
He really hates OK Computer, and goes on for several hundred words explaining in detail how much he hates it, and why. Fair enough; it's not to everyone's taste. But his opening premise ought to make the reader wary of trusting his opinion. I'll include a link to it, though it may be available only to subscribers: "Against Suicide Rock."
I think the album is getting this attention because this year is its 25th anniversary, which I will say quickly and predictably is hard to believe, time flies, etc. Another NR writer, Jack Butler, published a completely different view of it a few weeks ago: "A Pig In A Cage On Antibiotics"; you wouldn't know from that title that it's wildly enthusiastic.
All this caused me to listen to the album again for the first time at least since I stopped commuting to work six years ago. I think I only heard it back in its day because one of my then-teenaged children had it. In fact I think the CD I have may have been borrowed or inherited from her. And as far as I can remember I never heard it anywhere but in my car, and had never actually sat and listened to it at home on good equipment. Now I have, and while I liked it before I didn't quite get why so many people think it's a great work. Now I do. I'm not widely knowledgeable about the pop music of the last few decades, but I'm pretty sure this is one of the outstanding albums of the time.
It is indeed, as Smith complains and Butler enthuses, a fragmented, seemingly disorganized work. In that respect it made me think of "The Waste Land," though in saying so I don't mean that I think it's on the same artistic level. But as a piece of popular music, including not only composition and performance but arrangement and recording, it is brilliant, deserving to be compared with other landmarks in the genre. I thought specifically of Dark Side of the Moon: you might say this is a Dark Side for a more anxious, uneasy, disoriented, technologically oppressive time. And Dark Side was not exactly cheerful or comforting.
The songs are not so much songs in the usual sense as complex compositions for voice and instruments. I doubt there have been many covers of any of them. And I doubt that any but the most zealous and gifted teenage guitarists sit around trying to play them. The music is worlds away from the bluesy foundations of most rock. Plaintive melodies are embedded in, or give way suddenly to, instrumental work going off in sometimes very different directions. Rhythms shift and jerk. Lyrics are sparse and fragmented, though not so much so that they fail to do useful work. It's all very complex and carefully assembled, or at any rate it really does sound assembled, not at all spontaneous.
My only small reservation about the album is that it sags a bit toward the end. Something more than halfway through there's a very weird little interlude in which a synthetic voice recites a string of self-help counsels: "Fitter, happier, more productive...." The voice, if I remember correctly, is that of the text-to-speech reader of the then-current Macintosh. It always sounded somewhere between ludicrous and disconcerting and it's a perfect touch here. This leads into a sequence of three songs that end with the sweetest moment of the album, "No Surprises," which to my taste would be the perfect closer. But there are two more songs which, though they're excellent on their own, seem to me in context a bit of a falling-off.
In case you haven't heard the album, here's a taste--the first song, "Airbag":
And thank you to Kyle Smith, who caused me to hear it in its full glory.