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Weirdest Thing I've Ever Heard A Music Critic Say

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.


Julee Cruise, RIP

I first heard her on Peter Schickele's radio program, Schickele Mix. I'll guess the year was about 1991. It was a wonderfully eclectic hour of music and talk about music and I sometimes recorded it to cassette.

One night he played this song. As far as I recall he didn't say anything by way of introduction beyond the singer's name. I had never heard of her. I had never seen Twin Peaks and knew little about David Lynch beyond the fact that he was the director of a movie called Blue Velvet which I had stopped watching part way through because I found it too disturbing. I can only describe my reaction to the song as some weird combination of mesmerized and electrified. And touched by a deep sadness. I kept the tape of that program for a long time, mainly for this song.

This was before the web, and I had no way of learning more about the artist or the music. Of course I had no idea that I would eventually become a big fan of Twin Peaks and some of Lynch's other work. I don't know how much time went by before I got the album, Floating Into the Night, but it was before I ever saw Twin Peaks. That had to wait for Netflix. I liked the album as much as I liked the one song. 

Here's what I wrote about the album in the 52 Albums series. I don't see anything there that I would disagree with now, five years later.

Julee Cruise died within the past day or two. According to this obituary in The Guardian, she had lupus. And the comment from her husband--"she left this realm on her own terms"--makes it sound like she might have taken her own life rather than wait for the disease to take it. I would not judge harshly anyone who takes that step under those conditions, but I hope it's not true. 

Here's the song which was the foundation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Of the Twin Peaks sound.

 


Alvvays: Antisocialites

Let's get this out of the way: it's pronounced "always." Or so says AllMusic.

Every time I think all the life is gone from pop music, something like this band comes along to prove that it isn't dead yet. I don't mean something that sounds like this, but anything that I can be enthusiastic about, even if it's the kind of dark enthusiasm that I got some years ago when I first heard The Cure's Disintegration: something that's really a fresh achievement, something so good that I want to tell people about it. Antisocialites is not especially innovative, just very very good. Rob G introduced me to it, for which I thank him. 

In a better world this song would be a hit single:

This is the first track, and my favorite, but only by a very narrow margin. Naturally, I like some of the songs better than others, but I like at least half of them about as much as I do "In Undertow," and the others are quite good. Most are irresistibly catchy, to my ears at least. 

I usually try to give any new album three reasonably attentive and open-minded hearings before committing myself to a positive or negative opinion--especially a negative one, because often something that doesn't do much for me at first gets better with more listening. But I liked this one instantly, and have now heard it at least five times with no less pleasure. It's almost hard to believe that guitar-based pop-rock can still sound as fresh as this does.

The singer's voice is a big part of the freshness: it's not spectacular or dramatically emotive or strikingly distinctive, just young and clear and accurate and, well, fresh. It's almost a bonus that the lyrics are intelligible and often clever. In "In Undertow" the speaker says

"What's left for you and me?"
I ask that question rhetorically

and then a bit later

"What's left for you and me?"
You respond to my question metaphorically

Sounds like Aimee Mann, and that's a big compliment.

The album is a bit old-fashioned in that it's short: ten songs of what used to be the typical length of three minutes or so. It occurs to me to wonder whether it was deliberately kept short to be more LP-compatible: at not much over thirty minutes it's comparable to many of the great albums of the pre-CD era. Or maybe they just didn't want to include anything that was less than first-rate. Good decision either way. There aren't that many pop musicians who can keep me interested for the 60-plus minutes that CDs made possible. 

Here's a live performance of "In Undertow." I don't know about you but it's somewhat rare for me to watch a band performing without being annoyed by a lot of stagey forced-looking posturing. They don't do any of that, and it's refreshing. 

 


Haydn: Symphony #92, "Oxford"

I think I mentioned in a comment on some other post that I sort of stumbled across this symphony. Unusually for me, I had tuned in to the local public radio station in my car (because I was tired of the CD that was in the player), and the second movement of this symphony was playing. I ended up sitting in the car (the weather was still tolerably cool) and listening through to the end, and really enjoyed it. 

Since then I've heard it several more times, in two different recordings. First was a 1972 version, Klemperer conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Then I tried a newer one, Franz Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, which, as the name suggests, is more of a period-performance outfit. I liked the Klemperer better. A good bit better, really. I've wondered if perhaps my preference in recordings of a given piece is simply that the first one I hear gets fixed in my mind as the way it should be. But in any case the older recording touches me in a way that the newer one does not. One obvious difference is that Brüggen speeds it up. Look at these times:

Klemperer:
Adagio – Allegro Spiritoso 8:55
Adagio 10:00
Menuetto: Allegretto 6:12
Presto 6:04

Brüggen:
Adagio Allegro Spritoso 7:27
Adagio 6:09
Menuetto: Allegretto 5:08
Presto 5:23

The difference in the Adagio must surely include some cuts. The tempos are not that different. But I think Brüggen's speed makes the music less rich, which is probably also an effect of the period instruments.

It's called "Oxford" because it was said to have been played at the ceremony in which Oxford awarded Haydn a Doctor of Music degree. The Wikipedia article suggests that was not actually the case. But it was apparently written and first performed while Haydn was in England.

I tend to think of Haydn as somewhat on the dull side, and I think I'm far from alone in that. But I'm pretty sure I'd like a lot of his music if I gave it a chance. I'm embarrassed to say that I actually have a CD of his oratorio The Creation and have never seriously listened to it. The only piece I've listened to repeatedly is the string quartet version of The Seven Last Words of Christ, and I like it quite a lot. 

Here's the last movement of the "Oxford." It puts a smile on my face, and perhaps will do so on yours, too. It makes me think of Mozart, but with less razzle-dazzle. Haydn is a very solid composer.


Richard Strauss: Salome

Well, that was something. 

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a history of 20th century classical music. (I wrote about the book last year, in this post.) I recall being a bit surprised that the book opened not with that usual-for-this-subject anecdote about the 1913 premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but with a 1906 performance of Salome. I've never listened to much of Strauss's music and did not think of him as a modernist bomb-thrower. But Salome preceded The Rite by seven years. And, as I just discovered, it is explosive. 

I had thought, on finishing the Ross book, that I would try to work my way through at least some of the major works that he discusses and I had not heard, or not really heard. I'm just now getting around to following up on that. Conveniently, I had come into a recording of Salome not long before, in what I have been calling the Fr. Dorrell trove--several hundred classical LPs left behind when an elderly priest died a few years ago. It's an RCA Red Seal recording from the late '60s, with Montserrat Caballé as Salome and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, and it's one of those wonderful boxed sets of the great age of the LP, with a big handsome booklet containing the libretto and various other material. I put the first disk on and settled into a chair with the libretto.

Never mind the dates: Alex Ross was right to put this opera at the head of the "let's shake things up" line of early 20th century works. It is a far more sensational composition than the Rite, both musically and thematically. A hundred and twenty years later, it still has some power to shock (which I suppose means I am not as thoroughly jaded as I thought).

I had not gotten very far before I thought This libretto was written by a gay man. And sure enough: it's from a play by Oscar Wilde, written before his fall.

He takes quite a few liberties with the biblical text. In the New Testament story, the young and beautiful Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod and daughter of Herod's wife Herodias, and is used by the latter to get rid of John the Baptist. In his eyes the marriage is illicit and immoral, and, being John the Baptist, he says so much too forthrightly for Herodias's liking. Salome dances for Herod, reducing him, apparently, to a state of lustful helplessness such that he swears to give her anything she asks. I can't help figuring he had something more in mind, the dance being over at that point. Herodias prompts Salome to ask for the head of the Baptist, and Herod, trapped by his promise, has to give it to her. 

Not so as Wilde tells the story. In his version, it is Salome who is consumed with lust, and lust with an edge of perversion. She  first appears without the other two, demanding of the jailer that she be allowed to see the prophet, and, when the jailer reluctantly obeys her, begins to slaver over the Baptist in very lurid terms:  

I am amorous of thy body!
Thy body is white like the lilies of a field
that the mower hath never mowed.
Thy body is like the snows of Judea...
...[eight or ten more lines in this vein]...
Suffer me to touch thy body.

See what I mean? John of course rebuffs and denounces her vigorously, which only adds the spice of anger to her weird eroticism. She disparages his body and has a rhapsody over his hair. Eventually she settles, obsessively, on his mouth, determined to kiss him, and then, when he will have nothing to do with her (beyond telling her to repent), to take revenge on him .

As Wilde retells the story, Herod is Salome's tool, very deliberately led into a trap by her, and while Herodias approves of what her daughter is doing, she's really just a bystander. And in the end Salome gets her wish, after a fashion. Whatever one may think of Wilde's version, it is dramatically effective.

But this is an opera. What about the music? I'm afraid I was too busy following the libretto word for word to really get the music. The opera is in German, and the libretto in this package includes the German and a line-by-line English translation. I have just enough of a feel for German to pay attention to it, but not to understand much of it, and so was constantly switching back and forth between the two texts, trying to keep up with both. I only have a general impression of the music: vivid, discordant, colorful, wildly varied. A few passages did jump out at me: for instance, the moments when Herod has a sense of foreboding, imagining a great wind and "the beating of vast wings." I think I'll like it when I listen to it again. If "like" is the right word.

Strauss-Salome-Caballe-Leinsdorf

I think the recording is great, by the way. Sonically it's wonderful, and I see a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon.


Johanna's House of Glamour: Farewell Street

I have a soft spot, a very soft spot, for minor and neglected artists. There is a great deal of overlap in the two categories. The minor artist--meaning one who has some significant accomplishments, but smaller in number and/or scope than those of the artist acknowledged to be "great" or "major"--is often neglected. And the neglected artist is almost by definition minor, as I don't think it very likely that there are any great artists who are little known. For some reason these lesser lights are very appealing to me; I'm excited when I find them, and enjoy telling people about them. Perhaps it's just a certain sympathy for the underdog, for the person who's good at something but always in the shadow of those who are better, and who strikes me as deserving more. Perhaps it's in part because the genius of really great artists, the ones on the level of Bach, Shakespeare, and a fairly limited number of others, seems beyond human, beyond anything that I at least can really imagine being able to do. The minor artist seems more like the rest of us; or, more pertinently, like me. I can't imagine being able to write Shakespeare's plays. I can imagine writing a handful of poems worth preserving.

This album is one of those minor but exciting finds. I came across it in the cutout bin of a record store quite a few years ago, most likely before the turn of the century. It had been released in 1990 and presumably run whatever commercial course it achieved when I discovered it. The name of the band, the title of the album, and the cover intrigued me. I may also have noticed and been intrigued by the name of the record company, C'est La Mort.  It seemed nice and gloomy and was cheap enough to be worth a try. I may have paid a dollar for it, probably not more than two. And I liked it right off. As it turned out, the first track, "Losing Ground," is my favorite:

I love that desperate, anxious vocal. As this track suggests, if you want to label the band and the album, "goth" would be the appropriate tag But really no more than about half the songs fit there. The second track, "Now," is strikingly different:

"When I Loved You" sounds like it fell off some album of the late '60s, perhaps a pretty little song inserted between the long jams of a prog band. It reminds me of something but I can't quite place it. And one track, "Blue U," is not a song at all, but an aimless sort of jam with some chatter in the background. I speculate that the range of styles might have hurt the album's commercial potential.

The band may never have become really famous, but it hasn't been totally ignored, either. As you can see some of this album at least is on YouTube, and AllMusic has an entry for them, and rates this album and its follow-up, Style Monsters, very highly (four-and-a-half and four stars, respectively). The AllMusic reviewer compares the group and this album to the work of This Mortal Coil. That is very high praise, and apt. It doesn't sound like any particular TMC track, but the general vibe and aesthetic are similar. But TMC, which was basically a studio project run by a record label, 4AD in its heyday, had the benefit of a wide area of brilliant songs to cover, or rather rework, and brilliant singers to sing them. So while Farewell Street is more limited and not as good as, say, Filigree and Shadow, it does have several five-star tracks, and a number of very good ones.

Here is AMG's review of Farewell Street, and here the review of Style Monsters. I have not heard the latter but I plan to do so in the near future. Both appear to be out of print, but are readily and reasonably available (see Discogs). And you can buy it on MP3 from Bandcamp. I just bought Farewell Street from there, in fact, and paid more than the listed price in appreciation of the pleasure I've received from my $1-2 purchase, which got the band nothing. Apparently there are two more albums, but I can't find any information on them. 

Because it has fifteen tracks that run almost seventy minutes, I assumed that Farewell Street was only issued on CD. So I was surprised to see on Discogs that it was issued on vinyl. Those were the dying days of vinyl, or so it seemed at the time, and I think it was still pretty frequent for new music to appear in both formats (and cassette as well). The LP is four tracks shorter. Its cover is monochrome, not having that purple-pink overlay that the CD cover does, and I think it's better that way.

Johanna's House of Glamour-Farewell Street-LP


A Note on Period Performance

The struggle between those who think baroque and earlier music should only be performed with period instruments and style (as best the latter can be surmised) and those who think that's faddish nonsense producing dry, thin (or worse) performances can be somewhat bitter. I don't take a definite position, as I think there's something to be said for both. I have two recordings of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, one more in the "modern" period style (Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan) and one in the "traditional" modern style (Klemperer et.al.). I hope that way of putting it makes the controversy seem a bit ridiculous: the two recordings are very different from each other, and I love both of them. 

That aria from the St. John Passion sung by Krista Ludwig (see previous post) obviously comes from a recording which is in that second camp--lush, rich, expressive, maybe even "romantic." Not owning a copy of the oratorio, I thought I might buy the, or a, recording which includes Ludwig. As far as I can tell there is only one, recorded sometime in the '60s with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karl Forster with the choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral. It's apparently out of print but I was able to locate it on Discogs and Amazon. Used copies can be had, both CD and vinyl, at reasonable prices. 

StJohnPassion2

Trying to decide whether the overall performance is well-regarded enough to warrant buying it, I looked at the user reviews on Amazon. And I found a lengthy note from a Bernard Michael O'Hanlon which makes the anti-period argument very amusingly. 

"Goodbye to all that!" I muttered as I broke open the top of the tunnel. As far as I could tell, I was twenty metres beyond the barbed wire. Behind me lay Stalag Jeggy. For the past twenty five years I had been incarcerated inside this hellhole. The facility itself was owned and operated by SPECTRE (Sinister Period-Practice Enacted to Counter Traditional Readings Everlastingly). The Kommandant, whose hauteur was legendary, had tormented us incessantly by playing his speedy, dry-as-dust performance of the John Passion over the loudspeakers, punctuated by the occasional sea-shanty from Percy Grainger. Nor was he averse to reading out favourable reviews of his recordings from the Gramophone. Adding to our anguish, the chaplain of the Stalag was Father Melchizedek (O.P.), who also served concurrently as the High Priest of HIP. There had been tension between this cleric and the Kommandant as the latter had used a choir to scratch out his bloodless rendition of the John Passion whereas Father Melchizedek dogmatically insisted upon one-voice-per-part. In consequence, both parties took out their frustrations on the inmates. Devil's Island was Club Med in comparison.

The escapee goes on to discover a copy of the Forster recording. I take "Jeggy" to be a reference to John Eliot Gardiner. "HIP" seems to be meant to be an acronym but I don't know what the letters stand for. You can read the rest of the story here


"Es ist vollbracht" -- "It is finished" (Bach, St. John Passion)

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

(Text and translation from www.bach-cantatas.com), which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)

This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version. 

The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never. 


Mozart: Fantasia in C minor, K 475

I was listening to a CD which includes this work along with three of Mozart's piano sonatas. When this piece started I was confused for a bit because I thought it was Beethoven. Mozart can be surprising in that way. I had an aunt who loved classical music, and like many, especially of her generation, she tended to see the 19th century as the major event in the history of music, the Big Show. She said to me once that "you can hear Mozart trying to break out of his cage." I was a little annoyed by that at the time (I was in my early or maybe mid-twenties), because I was enchanted by Mozart's concerto for flute and harp. But as I heard more of his music I started to see what she might have meant. She died in the mid-'80s and I've often wished she were still here to discuss music with me. (Naturally, none of her own children inherited her interest and aptitude, and she was delighted when I developed an interest. I was the only one in the extended family who did, and she and I had no blood relationship at all--she was my father's sister-in-law.)

At any rate, though I do love a lot of Mozart, he does often seem rather too light. There's plenty of the lightness in this piece, but much more, as that opening shows.

I wonder if anyone has ever written an alternative history in which Mozart lives into old age and becomes one the most sheerly astonishing artists of all time in any medium. Well, he already is, of course, but just think...

 


Laudamus anyway

The "Laudamus" from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, K 427. (The "anyway" is because I've been in pretty low spirits, and listening to this Mass, especially this section, was beneficial.)

This is not the performance I listened to last night, which was a 1982 performance conducted by von Karajan with Barbara Hendricks. But I just found this one on YouTube and really like it. I think I'll try to find the whole recording.