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Long Beard: Sleepwalker

If I say this is a slight, girlish album, it may seem to be a putdown. But I don't mean it that way. Girls and girlishness may be sweet, sensitive, gentle, introspective, dreamy, whimsical, winsome, moody, and many other things which are quite charming (except maybe moody) if they don't get out of hand. And of course pretty. And most of those adjectives can be applied to this album, including pretty in the sonic rather than visual sense: it's full of very pretty tunes.

It's mainly the work of one young woman, with a bit of assistance on some tracks from a drummer and bass player. I don't have any idea why she chose that misleading name for her project. The image that the name brings immediately to my mind is of ZZ Top, than which an opposite to Long Beard more perfectly centered on 180 degrees is hard to imagine.

I call it a "project" because it's not exactly a band, as she is the vocalist and writer and plays the guitar which constitutes the main instrumental sound. Or, I should say, guitars: a lot of shimmery multi-tracked guitar, sometimes processed to the point of noise, but always a gentle, hazy noise. 

"Gentle" and "hazy" are pretty accurate descriptions of the whole thing. In addition to the guitars, there are a lot of beautiful multi-tracked and processed vocals which are either actually or effectively wordless. The lyrics are only half-intelligible at best to my old ears, but the artist has kindly put them on the Bandcamp page for the album, and they have the same slender, quiet quality as the music, simple and even prosaic, but suggesting much.

time it takes to grow old, on your porch
is it long enough
to get over you
summer rain brings your voice
to my ear
I'll stay up all night
just to hear your voice

It seems a suburban middle-class work--one song is called "Suburban Sunset"--and I mean that in a good way: a product of a fairly secure and undramatic way of life in which simple pleasures like summer twilight are deeply loved. I admit that on the first hearing or two my reaction was "Well, that's nice, but not much more." But it grew on me, and now I find it that I like it a lot. If it were a very long album with very long songs, it might not hold up. But it's only thirty-five minutes long, and the thirteen songs make their statement and stop. 

Here's the video for "Porch," which is about as close to rock-and-roll as the album gets. Tell me that's not girlish.

This embedded Bandcamp player seems to allow one to listen to the entire album. If you do, and you like it, please support the artist and click on that "buy" link. She's only asking $7.00 for the download.

I love that photograph. And I think my favorite song on the album may be the closer, "Twinkle Twinkle," which consists entirely of the phrase "How I wonder what you are" repeated in a softly varying mix of looped guitars and vocals: beautiful and oddly affecting.

Probable Last Word on Dark (German TV series)

I have a feeling that nobody who read my post about this series last November watched it. But in case you did, or in case you still might, but haven't yet seen season 3: well, it is my sad duty to tell you that it's...frustrating. At best. 

I'm not saying "sad" as a formality. I really am saddened, because there was so much I liked about this series: the atmosphere, the acting, the characters, the music. When I wrote that first post, I had only watched season 1. Season 2 was good, but something happened in the last scene of the last episode of season 2 that I thought was a mistake. It threatened to tip the scale from "overly complicated" to "incomprehensible." I'd like to explain that, but it would involve a very big spoiler, so I'll restrain myself.

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Bill Monroe: "Midnight On the Stormy Deep"

I was out running an errand last night and heard this on a bluegrass radio show. When I got home I immediately looked for it on YouTube. There is just nothing like Bill Monroe. I think he recorded this song at least twice, and that this one is from 1967. The story told in the song is sort of a folk staple, with many variations.  

The First Two Pink Floyd Albums

There was an exchange here not too long ago about the way music made by and for young people may not speak in the same way if heard first when youth is getting pretty small in the rear-view mirror. That middle-aged-or-older person may like and/or appreciate it, but not take it to heart as might have been the case in youth.

That probably describes my view of the first two Pink Floyd albums. I didn't hear them when they were released in late 1967 and mid-1968, though I think they were reasonably popular among the people I knew. The first of the group's albums I heard was 1969's Ummagumma. I liked it, or at least parts of it, and have liked a good deal of their music since, though I wouldn't say I'm a zealous fan. Several years ago I picked up used CD copies of their first two albums and only recently gave them a good listen.

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Chrissie Hynde Sings Dylan

My friend Stu pointed out a series of videos in which Chrissie Hynde and James Walbourne cover Dylan songs. This is "Standing In the Doorway," from Time Out of Mind. (You're really getting old when you think of an album that came out over twenty years ago as "recent.")

I never really listened very much to The Pretenders, the group in which Chrissie Hynde became famous. Moreover, it was only a few years ago that I learned that "Brass In Pocket," their first (and most successful?) hit single, was by them. When it was on the radio, back in 1979 or '80, I thought it was Blondie.  I don't know that their music would appeal to me all that much now, whatever its merits, as it seems very...youth-oriented, by and for the young. In my experience, if you don't hear that kind of music when you're actually young, it doesn't have the same appeal and effect. 

But Chrissie Hynde (who will turn 70 next year) had and still has a great voice. I'm looking forward to hearing the others in this series. 

Saint-Saëns: Septet Op. 65 for an Odd Combination of Instruments

Specifically: string quartet, piano, double bass, and...trumpet?

Some months ago I came into possession of a great many (hundreds) of old LPs, almost all classical. An elderly priest who had spent many years as an English professor had died, leaving behind an awful lot of books and records, and the archdiocese was going to give them all to Goodwill. I was given the chance to snag some of them before they were dumped. Most of the books were already gone, but I  brought home several hundred classical LPs which I certainly did not need and don't have room to store. This was the scene when I first brought them home (I may have posted this before, I can't remember):

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Breathless: Chasing Promises

(It may seem odd, frivolous, or foolish to be writing about an old pop album while the nation is coming apart mentally and perhaps in the not-too-distant future physically. But nothing I write will change that.)

I can't remember for sure, but I think "Moment to Moment" from this album may have been an eMusic freebie several years ago, before eMusic withered to its present condition. What I do know for sure is that I had it in a playlist of eMusic stuff that I hadn't really listened to, and which I played more or less in the background while working (on software stuff, not writing). 

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Since you can't go to Mass today...

(I think this is relevant to all Christians, not only Catholics but at least those whose communions have a liturgy, and worth the attention of those who don't. Or for that matter anyone who cares about the Western musical and spiritual tradition.)

Since you can't go to Mass today, probably, allow me to suggest that you listen to one of the great musical settings of the Latin Mass. One of my Lenten things this year--I can't truly call it much of a penance, but "discipline" is justifiable--is to confine my listening to sacred music. So far that's mostly been settings of the Mass, and, if you do this attentively--not just playing it in the background while you cook or wash the dishes or something--it's more or less inevitable that you will attend very carefully to the words and reflect on them.

So far I've mainly spent time with Bach's Mass in B-Minor, which of course I had heard before, having bought one recording way back in the late '60s (I think) and another in the '80s,  but never really gotten to know. It takes a bit of effort, as the work is something of a monster. It requires somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours to perform, depending on the conductor, and was never performed in Bach's lifetime. And if you're like me you may have trouble listening to two straight hours of non-operatic music (opera has a plot, and characters). But that's ok. The Kyrie and Gloria together run well over half an hour, the Credo most of a half-hour. And each of those sections is a complete musical work as well as theological statement.

My two recordings are pretty much opposite interpretations. You can gather that from the running times: two hours and fifteen minutes for one, an hour and forty-five for the other. The slow one is the one I bought when I was in college: Otto Klemperer, the BBC Chorus, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and an all-star group of vocal soloists including Janet Baker. The faster one is John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and vocal soloists whose names I don't recognize (not that that means much, except that they aren't superstars). (I don't know why an orchestra calls itself "Soloists".) 

The Klemperer is rich and majestic. The Gardiner is clear and lively. The former is, to speak very loosely, more or less in the more or less romantic tradition of Bach performance, while the latter is pretty much a textbook example of what's called the "HIP" approach--Historically Informed Performance.  (You can read about it at Wikipedia.) I think the two camps have at times been at war over the past several decades. I know some traditionalists hate the thinner, drier sound of period instruments, and some HIPsters mock the grandiosity of Mahler-ready orchestras and choruses applied to 18th century music. 

But I am very happy to have both these recordings. Very happy indeed. The traditional recording brings greater depth (in every sense) to some parts, but the big powerful choir and orchestra sometimes overwhelm the counterpoint or just seem inappropriate, too much. The HIP one is wonderfully clear, but the more somber, heavier parts have less emotional power. 

Thanks to YouTube, you can compare them for yourself. Yesterday I listened to the Laudate section of the Gloria four times, twice in each version. (The work is so massive that each idea or sentence in the text gets its own separate composition.) And I really like both. This is one part where there is, to my taste, no definite preference. I really like the light, bright quality of the Gardiner. The singer, compared to Janet Baker, sounds almost girlish, which for this section is appropriate, as is the sprightly tempo. But the violin obbligato, which is beautiful in the Klemperer, is anemic in the Gardiner. And so on.

I'm speaking as if you only have to take your recording off the shelf and put it on. But if you don't own one maybe you subscribe to one of the streaming music services. Or you can listen to one of the many recordings, whole or partial, that seem to be available on YouTube. If your knowledge of the Latin texts is no better than mine, and you don't own a recording which would typically include the texts, you'll probably need something you can read. You could start here and find the parts.



Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness

I'm just barely making my before-Ash-Wednesday deadline for this last of three music posts, so I'll be brief.

I avoid reading reviews before encountering the thing itself, whether the thing is music or book or film. But I like comparing my views to others' after I've formed my first impression. After hearing this album once or twice, I thought Kind of sounds like something from the '60s. Vashti Bunyan, maybe, or a female Donovan. Then I went over to and read that Julie Byrne had

...quickly received favorable comparisons to folk titans Vashti Bunyan and Joni Mitchell after releasing her first two records.

The fact that she made me think of Bunyan must mean that there is a definite similarity, as I've only heard a little of Bunyan's work. I wouldn't have thought of Joni Mitchell, because Byrne's music is considerably less complex, but I see the resemblance. The Donovan comparison is further afield: it's not so much any specific musical resemblance as the vibe of finger-picked folkie guitar, the soft warm voice, and the overall quality of gentleness introspective reflection. Several tracks are lightly and effectively enhanced with strings or electronics, and even a dash of natural sound. 

Not every song is a melodic gem. But the album as a whole keeps my attention. I suspect that most listeners would pick "Natural Blue" as one of the two or three best songs. It also happens to be the most elaborately produced, but I think it would work just fine with only Byrne's voice and guitar.

Thanks again to Rob G for introducing me to this and the previous two albums. 

Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass

I guess we've all heard people say of this or that style of music, generally one they don't care for, that "it all sounds the same." And from a casual distance it's usually a fair assessment. After all, Metallica and Megadeth sound vastly more like each other than either sounds like Bruce Springsteen, and someone who doesn't listen to metal might find them indistinguishable--or not worth distinguishing. But to a metal fan there are big and obvious differences. Likewise, someone who doesn't much care for sensitive, restrained, introspective music written and sung by a woman might think this album is not so very different from the Liela Moss one discussed in the previous post.

But in fact they are almost opposites in some ways: lush vs. sparse, expansive vs. intimate, passionate vs. restrained, open vs. guarded; maybe even light vs. dark. Agnes Obel's voice is not as rich as Moss's, and the arrangements are almost minimalist: piano augmented gracefully with touches of strings and percussion and some other sounds that I can't quite identify and are perhaps electronically produced. Obel's music and lyrics are darker, (even) more introspective, and in fact obscure, although that difference may be magnified by the fact that her lyrics are posted on her web site, whereas I have not been able to read Miller's and can't understand a fair number of them. There's no mystic communion with nature here, but rather a very private inner world. 

I thought the first two tracks here were great on first listen, and was thinking that the album might turn out to be a major favorite. To my taste, though, that promise didn't quite hold up. It is very good,  to be sure, but I've ended up less enthusiastic than I began (this is after four or five reasonably close hearings). The material seems a little uneven, although never less than immaculately arranged and performed. And maybe a more significant problem is that the lyrics just don't have much effect for me. It's not just that they're obscure or cryptic, but that they are so in a way that doesn't conjure much in the way of emotion or association for me; your reaction of course might be different. Everything musical here is so precise, so carefully placed to such exquisite effect, that I expect the words to be equally well chosen and placed. And I suppose they may have been by the artist, but for the most part they don't seem that way to me. 

I was intrigued by the title "It's Happening Again," hoping for something Lynchian, which--again, to my taste--the song doesn't quite provide. Perhaps it would for you. I grant that it would not seem out of place performed in the Roadhouse.

Oh look, there's an official video:

Based on the video I'd say the title is definitely a Twin Peaks reference. 

Despite my reservations, this is definitely a work I'll come back to. I see on her web site that she has just released a new album, Myopia. I'll be checking that out.