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Martin Phipps: From the Soundtrack of The Crown

When I watched the series I was so struck by this segment that I went looking for the soundtrack. It's called "New Queen," with apparently semi-ironic intent, since it occurs at the end of Series 3, Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

I absolutely love that piece. I just wish it went on longer. There are other good things in the soundtrack but nothing grabbed me as much as this.

Here's the whole scene. I take it for granted that the series gives a picture in some ways false, but whatever might be said along that line, Olivia Colman's performance as Elizabeth is outstanding:


Stewart Copeland on Charlie Watts

I've never been inclined to mourn celebrity deaths, especially in cases like that of Charlie Watts, who died this week at the age of 80 after a long and spectacularly successful career--and I hope his private life was equally successful. But I certainly don't feel any sense of personal loss.

And anyway I lost interest in the Rolling Stones sometime in the early '70s. I remember once, in probably the late '70s, picking up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine (no relation) and reading a review of whatever Stones album had just been released. The reviewer said that the album showed that the group was "still at the forefront of our culture," or something to that effect. Maybe he said "leading edge" or even "cutting edge," terms that were not as hackneyed then as they are now. I remember thinking "Which culture is that? The culture of super-rich hedonists?" It sure wasn't mine.

I liked those early (i.e. the '60s) Stones albums quite a lot, but haven't listened to them for many years. As a matter of fact, the only time I can remember hearing the Stones in the last forty years or so, apart from the occasional song on the radio, was maybe five to ten years ago when I noticed one of their recent releases in the library and checked it out just to see if they were doing anything interesting. And after one listen I concluded no, they weren't. I am somewhat curious about the blues album they released a few years ago--I can imagine that being quite good--but I haven't heard it.

Still, the eulogies about Watts reminded me of something I read way back when, probably ca. 1970. It was a remark by a jazz critic, and he was probably discussing the fact that Watts began as a jazz drummer: "Somebody makes the Rolling Stones swing, and it must be Charlie Watts." That intrigued me because I sort of knew what he meant, but sort of didn't. That is, I recognized that something about the Stones' rhythmic feel was different from that of other bands, but I didn't know what it was. The rhythms seemed looser than (for instance) the Beatles, almost relaxed in a way, but yet intense and driving. They don't "swing" in a jazz way, but...they do.

And that faint leftover curiosity was what prompted me to listen to this four-and-a-half-minute clip of another famous drummer, Stewart Copeland of The Police, commenting on Watts. It's interesting, and the technical bit seems to describe the thing I heard.

I think a lot of people have an image of drummers, especially rock drummers, as Neanderthals pounding on things. In my experience drummers tend to be quite bright. On some level they have to be, unless they literally are just pounding, to keep track of the multiple interlocking rhythmic threads they generally have going on. 

Speaking of drummers: I have a Kindle Fire, the Kindle which is cheaper because it forces you to see Amazon advertisements. Now and then it offers me a free Kindle book, and it's usually not something that interests me, and anyway I don't often read books on the Kindle or any other electronic device. So I usually ignore these offers. But when it offered me the memoir Inside Out by Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason, I was curious enough to take it.

The book turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. Mason is a bright and witty guy, and the book is a straightforward account of Floyd's history, pretty well devoid of sensationalism, modest, very down to earth, with a particular focus on the sheer logistics of the elaborate stage shows for which the band was famous. Worth a look if the subject interests you.


Laura Donnelly Sings Kate Bush

I ran across this when I was working on that Laki Mera post, and I love it. It's a rare instance of a cover that's neither a mere copy nor a complete transformation--not that there is anything wrong with complete transformation, if it works. Everyone who knows Kate Bush's music at all knows this song, "Running Up That Hill," which is on what most consider her best album, Hounds of Love. It's a very striking song, and Kate's voice was of course pretty spectacular back then, and the big arrangement, with lots of multi-tracked vocals, is very effective--the whole thing is just big, a movie on the big screen (although according to Wikipedia it's all done by five people, counting Kate). It sort of demands to be played loud.

Here Laki Mera make it intimate without really changing anything. Laura Donnelly's performance exemplifies what I like about her singing: it's soft but not weak, not overtly expressive but still somehow full of feeling. You might call it restrained in comparison to Kate, but it doesn't feel constrained. Instead of a cry of passion it's a gentle word, but the emotion is still there.

The song seems to be a sort of musing on the strangeness of the male-female difference, and the fact that neither can know what it feels like to be the other, in the sex act but not only there. 

If I only could
I'd make a deal with God
And I'd get him to swap our places

I guess I should include the original, in case you don't know it.

 


Laki Mera: Turn All Memory Into White Noise

I've been meaning to write about this album for well over a year now. When I first got the CD (thanks, Rob), I left it in the car player for a while, which meant that I heard it several times, but not very attentively. What with the distractions of driving and the interference of various noises, I always miss something when listening in the car--sometimes a lot, as my ten-year-old Honda Civic is not especially quiet. Now, having finally gotten around to writing about it, I thought I ought to give it a listen at home, partly to refresh my memory and partly to see what I'd missed. 

I'm glad I did, because I had indeed missed a lot. The album is even better than I remembered musically, and the quality of the recording is superb. There's a lot of electronically-produced sound on it, and modern recording equipment and techniques seem to be able to make that stuff seem enormously present. 

Partway through the first track, I jotted down an initial three-word impression: noisy melodic trip-hop. The first word, however, proved not very applicable to most of the album. The third...well, trip-hop, like all the subgenre terms in pop music, is pretty elastic, but this fits my idea, more or less, though it stretches the term pretty far. (Actually it seems to me that the implied connection with hip-hop is rather thin, but I'm pretty ignorant of that genre--you can read the Wikipedia article if you're interested in the background). It's not as dark as a lot of trip-hop. So I'll say bright melodic trip-hop.

The heart of the music is Laura Donnelly's warm, clear, even voice. I guess what I'm calling "even" is a matter of style more than equipment, but at any rate her singing has relatively little variation in intensity and volume, and that's not a criticism: it's very appealing, something of a warm-blanket effect. 

As with trip-hop in general, there's a mysterious atmosphere, which is enhanced by the lyrics, also by Donnelly. They're vague, prose-y (no rhyme or regular meter), but suggestive and affecting. The first track, "Come Alone", begins with this:

Come alone
Don't bring anyone inside who won't believe
The air pervades all things
Since we moved all of our things
I get confused
About which room I'm going into

That sort of bouncing back and forth between the dreamy and the down-to-earth is pretty characteristic of the songs. 

YouTube has made it seem like too much work to try to describe music in words. Here's the lovely "Keep Me Safe," the album's closing track. Several others have equally fine string arrangements--and they're real strings, not synths, which I casually assumed when I half-heard them in the car.

I also have the band's first release, Clutter, which is as good as this one. I have not heard their second, The Proximity Effect, but I soon will, as I'm going to buy it from their Bandcamp store when I've finished this post. Turn All Memory is their third and apparently final: it was released in 2013 and as far as I can tell there has been nothing else. (The title, by the way, comes from a Margaret Atwood novel which I have not read.) Laura Donnelly has a solo album, Let Your Listening Be Wide, which I also plan to sample, at least. 

P.S. Here's a better three-word description, from the band themselves: organic, emotional, electronic. From this interview.


John Darnielle: Universal Harvester

JohnDarnielle-UniversalHarvester2

John Darnielle, as you may know, is the principal in The Mountain Goats. In effect, he is the mountain goat, as the band seems to be (or at least to have been for some time), essentially a one-man project consisting of Darnielle and various accompanists. He's a brilliant (and astonishingly prolific) songwriter, and the great strength of his songwriting is in the lyrics. This is his second novel; I have not read the first, Wolf In White Van.

When a friend passed this book along to me after having read it himself and, if I understood him, not expecting to read it again, I wasn't sure that I would ever read it. Why not? Well, contemporary fiction is not my great interest, and I had low expectations, including the impression (of unknown origin) that it would be a whimsical, ironic, and gently humorous look at small and mundane things, somewhat along the lines of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories. I enjoyed those at the time, but the time was decades ago now, and I have not wanted to revisit them, and have no particular desire to read anything else of the sort. And--the strongest reason, I guess--the ability to write a good song is not necessarily accompanied by the ability to put words on a page effectively.

And I might well not have read Universal Harvester if the recent release of a new Mountain Goats album, Dark In Here, which I haven't heard, had not been the occasion of a conversation which resulted in my lending the book to someone else, and his reaction causing me to have a look at it myself.

I was not altogether mistaken in expecting something Keillor-esque. The story takes place in small towns in Iowa (their placement is significant, and a map is helpful). And the characters are small people, mostly young, limited in the scope of their knowledge and ambition. Set in the late '90s, it begins in a video rental store (the Video Hut) with a young man named Jeremy who is one of the two clerks who are the only staff apart from the owner. Jeremy is twenty-two years old and still suffering from the loss of his mother in an auto accident when he was sixteen. He lives with his still-grieving father; they get by, not knowing quite what to do with themselves. Jeremy is getting a little old to be working in a video store.

Much of the novel might be said with reasonable accuracy to be in Keillor mode. The people are portrayed with charm and a little irony, the ways of the place observed keenly, with a bit of humor and a distinct melancholy but no unkindness. But then it switches into another mode, a much darker one. Into the Video Hut one morning comes a girl named Stephanie, returning a tape, and hesitatingly, vaguely, telling Jeremy that something is wrong with it.

She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one" she said.

Jeremy thinks she's complaining about the movie (Targets, a 1968 movie in which Boris Karloff appeared, shortly before his death).

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said, "No, it's a great movie. I've seen it before.".... "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

(Sarah Jane is the store's owner.) Jeremy puts the tape aside and forgets about it. A few days later another customer brings in another tape, with a similar complaint. Some days go by before anyone looks into the problem, but eventually Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane have watched two of the tapes, separately or together, and what they find disturbs them. Spliced into the movies are bits of home video shot in what seems to be a barn or shed. In one case it's several minutes of nothing, just the empty place. Others involve mild violence, or near-violence: a hooded and silent figure doing odd, slightly demeaning things; a person or persons hidden under a tarp, seeming to struggle, and receiving several kicks.

More similarly modified tapes are discovered. Most of the interpolations aren't actually violent, but they're menacing, not only in their content but in their apparently random appearances in apparently random movies. Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane begin to search for their source. Mixed with the deftly rendered personal stories and situations of these characters now is an element of dread: these scenes are real, and they do not seem to be staged, and they seem filled with dread, though nothing very dreadful actually happens in them.

So perhaps this is going to be a horror story, or a thriller. Then the tricksy stuff begins: the narrator intrudes on a scene to say that there is another version of it, in which this happens instead of that. Repeatedly the story walks up to what promises to be a revelation, then veers away to something else. There's a great deal--too much for my taste--of shifting around in time: something is about to happen, the scene shifts, and sometime later we learn something about the thing that was about to happen. All very cinematic--consciously so, I would guess, since movies are central to the story.

Eighty-four pages in, Part Two begins, and we are in the story of a woman who, a few days after Christmas in 1972, abandons her husband and young daughter to join a Christian cult. You'll note that there are now two instances of a lost mother.

The stories do come together, and I guess most of this back-and-forth, up-and-back movement lies in the general area of modern fictional technique. (Or is it post-modern?--I'm not competent to say.) But it becomes frustrating, in spite of the charm of the details, because (in addition to there being too much of it) too many questions remain unanswered. Or at least seem to. When I closed the book I felt annoyed that I still didn't know exactly what had happened. And then I wondered whether anything at all had happened: had I just experienced a far more sophisticated execution of the "it was all just a dream" trick that has always seemed to me a cheap one? I am not a fan of The Wizard of Oz.

Having pondered it a bit more, I think I do know what happened, though I'm not certain, and even if I'm right about the big picture there are still a good many puzzling details that I'm not pleased not to see cleared up. Moreover, I think one could construct an argument that is at least plausible that almost none of the narrative actually occurred. Ambiguity and subtlety are good things, but I think Universal Harvester may go a bit too far in those directions.

Still, I give it a qualified recommendation. There is much to enjoy, and a fair amount that is strongly moving. And perhaps you will catch on more quickly than I did; I was long ago forced to recognize that I can be somewhat thick. I'll give you one bit of advice: pay very close attention when the narrator says "I", or otherwise refers to him/her self.

In any case, there's no doubt that John Darnielle's gifts as a writer extend to fiction.


Is "Hotel California" the best rock recording of the 1970s?

I'm referring to the song alone, not the album. And although I don't think the answer is an absolute "yes," if only because you can't reasonably pick one, if I did have to pick one, this might be it. I have trouble coming up with something that I would definitely place above it, or alongside it: Springsteen's "Born to Run," maybe, or another song from the album of the same name. 

Anyway, it's a great song, and a great recording; i.e. it isn't the song alone, but the whole package. What do I mean by "great"? Well, aside from musical excellence, I have in mind some sort of depth and scope, something that gives the recording a broad cultural significance, and maybe even more. As a commentary on the decay of American society, and specifically of the decay of the phenomenon we call "the Sixties," "Hotel California" is profound. 

And it is musically brilliant, in writing and performance: the imaginative and decidedly atypical (for pop music) chord progression, the odd but mysteriously effective dub-like rhythm, the lyrics which brilliantly describe a place devoted to sensual pleasure which "could be heaven or...could be hell," where the inhabitants 

...gather for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast

and from which there is no escape, as described in the lines which have become part of our culture: 

You can check out anytime you like
But you can never leave

And the dual electric guitar breaks which are up there with "Sultans of Swing" in Guitar World's list of classics (#5 and #7, respectively).

I posted a shorter version of this on Facebook, and got a certain number of "I hate the Eagles" responses, several saying their music is bland and boring, and referencing that scene from The Big Lebowski:

I'm not a big fan of the Eagles. In fact I've always disliked the song to which The Dude is reacting in that scene. I like some of their music well enough, especially the Desperado album, but it's not music I go out of my way to hear, and I never bought any of their albums. (I might have bought Desperado, but I was working in a record store when it was released, and heard it enough for a lifetime.)

But "Hotel California" is different from everything else they did. Whatever you think of it, "bland" and "boring" do not apply.

Forty years on, the song's metaphor continues to be applicable to the country. It occurs to me that it represents an end point to something initiated or at least recognized in the Beatle's "A Day in the Life" approximately ten years earlier. "A Day in the Life" sketched an alienated culture and suggested liberation through drugs. "Hotel California" is where that trip ended. 


The Dale Cooper Quartet: Metamanoir

I didn't know until I looked for information about this group that there is a genre--okay, subgenre--of music called "dark jazz." And I bet you didn't know how many subgenres of jazz there are: see this Wikipedia page for a list and brief descriptions. I often suspect that some of the many, many subgenres of popular music exist mainly in the minds of critics, or of a very small coterie of fans and musicians. 

Be that as it may, "dark jazz" is a pretty good description of much of Angelo Badalamenti's music for Twin Peaks--not the nostalgic Julee Cruise love songs, but the instrumental background music of the Black Lodge and other dark scenes--and also, as the name suggests, of the music of the Dale Cooper Quartet. The music for Audrey's dance, for instance (a brief snippet):

I could quibble--I am quibbling--about whether the word "jazz" is accurate, because this isn't really jazz in any usual sense. In both these instances there's no improvisation, no sense of spontaneity at all. It is the opposite of lively (though "deadly" is not the way to express the opposition; such is our language). The "jazz" part of the term refers to the predominant instruments: reeds, drums, string bass. But these are really, so to speak, flavorings, meant to evoke an atmosphere similar to that of a noir film: dim, smoky, mysterious, maybe sinister, somewhat antique. It's very cinematic music, a stylized nod toward the subdued and melancholy sort of jazz that would be appropriate for a scene where the private eye meets the femme fatale in a bar and begins to fall in love with her.

Like any Twin Peaks fan, I love the music, so when a group named for Agent Cooper appeared some years ago at emusic.com I immediately gave it a listen. The music pretty well lived up to the promise of the name, so I bought this album, and another one, the enticingly titled Quatorze Pieces de Menace (the band is French). But, as has often happened, they were caught up in the flood of inexpensive MP3 music I was purchasing at the time, and I didn't really give them the attention they deserved. My recent re-viewing of Twin Peaks reminded me of them.

DaleCooperQuartetMetamanoir

I listened to Metamanoir (Meta Manor?) first, for the simple and easy reason that it appears first in the alphabetically-ordered list my music player shows me. It's excellent. It isn't an imitation of Badalamenti's music, but it's very much of a similar ambience. Besides the jazz-ish instrumentation, there are guitar and electronic sounds, along with natural sounds and mysterious industrial-mechanical creaks, rhythms, and drones (also pretty Lynchian, or Badalamentian). There are vocals, but they're pretty minimal, and the lyrics, where they're understandable, evoke melancholy and uneasiness.

The song titles are all in French, and have a Rimbaud-like, or at any rate very French, almost surreal quality, juxtaposing words in unusual and not necessarily intelligible ways: "Sa Prodigieux Hermitage, or "His Prodigious Hermitage." "Eux Exquis Acrostole" is the second track, and Google Translate turns this into "Them Exquisite Acropole." "Acropole" seems to be "Acropolis,"  but "Them" surely can't be correct. Oh well, whatever. The preceding track, "Une Petit Cellier" ("A Little Cellar," I think) consists of slow heavy breathing, a rhythm-less saxophone, and an organ drone. Then at the end there's a female voice recorded in telephone fidelity, at first unintelligible (to me), then becoming words, first spoken and then sung, words which will be prominent in "Acrostole":

Try to run away
The darkness won't cover you
Run away
Run away

Note: the video has some scenes some might find disturbing, such as a man apparently receiving electro-shock treatment. (Is that Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?). You might want to sit somewhere else and listen.

My MP3 copy does not include "and the Dictaphones" in the band's name. I'm not sure whether that's part of the official name of the band or the name of other participants in the album. In any case, if you like this, by all means seek out the album. It's available on Bandcamp

My re-viewing of Twin Peaks on Netflix, by the way, as I feared, did not come anywhere near completion of the whole original series. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it was removed from Netflix at the end of June, and I was only able to get as far as episode 5 of season 2. As fans will immediately note, that's still several episodes before the revealing of Laura Palmer's murderer, after which, by near-universal opinion, the quality falls off. Feeling compelled to see it at least up until that point, I resentfully paid Amazon $20 for access to the whole of season 2. I expect to watch episode 8 tomorrow, and the climactic episode 9 soon after.  

I'm not quite as enchanted by the series this time around. But that still leaves me pretty enchanted.


Is "Little Pink Houses" a Patriotic Anthem?

Kyle Smith of National Review thinks so. I half-agree. I don't think I've heard it more than half a dozen times, and always on a car radio. But I do remember the first time, because "Ain't that America" jumped out at me as a perfect expression of amused and unillusioned affection: "Yeah, it's a crazy country, but we love it anyway." I've used the phrase at least a few times here, apropos some bit of very American extravagant eccentricity. Here, make up your own mind:

And I love the old man saying to his old wife: "Hey darlin', I remember when you could stop a clock." I was just saying that to my gray-haired wife the other day. 

One of the category tags on this post comes from this song, which is not that great in itself but which I've always remembered for the title phrase and for "Somebody give me a cheeseburger":

And that's my Fourth of July post. Shine, perishing republic--and recall that that poem was written in the 1920s.


William Grant Still: "Out of the Silence"

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony Saturday night. It was a peculiar concert, and I'm not sure I would have gone if I'd realized how peculiar it would be. But they've had a very difficult year-plus, of course, and I wanted to support them. And although it was not the most exciting program conceivable, it included Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E, which I like (and which I wrote about here), and which I knew I would enjoy hearing live. 

The peculiarity had to do with the fact that the concert was apparently planned before the pandemic restrictions had been mostly lifted. I think this picture, lifted from the orchestra's Facebook page, tells the story more effectively than I could.

SociallyDIstancedSymphony

When I walked in to take my seat in the otherwise empty center section of the balcony, and saw the sparsely populated stage, I just thought vaguely that most of the orchestra had not shown up yet. That would have been pretty strange, since it was only ten minutes or so before the concert was to start. Then it sank in on me that this it, this was all there was going to be. You might have to click on the picture to see that the musicians are masked. And "social distancing" was in force for the audience as well, though it didn't really matter because there were very few people in the audience. I'd guess a few hundred at most, scattered around a hall that seats almost 2,000.

As you can see, it's only the strings, and not quite all of them. Then I looked at the program and saw that it would only be a little under forty-five minutes long. Another thing that hadn't sunk in on me was that they are presenting it four times over the weekend, obviously in an effort to compensate for the extremely limited seating. 

But I enjoyed it anyway. The concert began with this little piece, which I regard as a real find. As far as I recall I'd never heard anything by William Grant Still before. If I'd heard it without knowing who the composer was I'd have guessed Delius. The strings were joined for it by a piano and a single flute.

In addition to the Dvorak, there was a Mendelssohn sinfonia for strings, a light and pretty early work which was enjoyable enough but which I'm not likely to seek out again.


The Hollies: "Look Through Any Window"

Coming home tonight just before dark and seeing into the living rooms and kitchens of houses where the lights had just been turned on but the curtains were open, I started thinking about this song.

I never heard any of The Hollies' music apart from their hit singles, but those from the mid-'60s still sound fresh and first-rate to me.