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Elton John: Elton John

Here's another LP from the closet (not from the Fr. Dorrill collection, most of which is still sitting around in boxes), in response to a conversation I had some weeks ago in which I promised to give it a listen.

Elton John's name has come up here once or twice, and I was pretty dismissive. I'm sorry, but there's something about the guy's music, especially his voice, that doesn't appeal to me, even though I recognize that if I look at it with some detachment I see that the work he did in his prime was really good. Somehow his music always seemed not quite real to me. And I just don't care for his voice. And I never have been fond of the piano as a rock instrument.

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Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

This piece is actually what I was writing when I started thinking about the so-called baby boomer generation, and the whole generations scheme, which led to a separate post on that theme. More about that further down.

A month or two or three ago when this album came out there was a promotional video for it using the first track, "I Contain Multitudes." I listened to it and thought "Well, this is an album I can skip." I mean, Dylan's recent work has been pretty good, but there wasn't all that much that I felt like I couldn't do without. There's so much music I want to hear that I wasn't going to bother with this one. But my friend Stu told me I really should give it a listen. So I did: thanks, Stu.

I do think it's a mixed bag. But the good stuff...well, I'll take it track by track.

"I Contain Multitudes"
(The phrase is from Whitman, as you probably know.) I just don't care much for this. It's not so much a song as a recitation over some not especially effective music. There are some good lines but overall the lyrics are not so great. "I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes." It's a good thing that it's not that long.

"False Prophet"
Now the album really gets started: blues riff, words somewhat on the dark side. I would quote some of it but you really have to hear it in his voice. At six minutes it doesn't seem too long. His vocals are impossible, by which I mean that it seems impossible that they are as effective as they are. As has been the case for some time, it's often a stretch to call what he does singing. But it really works.

"My Own Version of You"

All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you

Over a descending spooky-movie line the song goes on like that. Is he creating a Frankenstein's monster, or an ideal lover, or maybe even creating God in his own image? I'm not sure--making linear sense is not what Dylan does--but this is a strong track. Everybody knows Dylan traffics in allusion, but I suspect he does it even more than most of us recognize. Like this line: "You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome."

Because I've had a copy of Bo Diddley's 16 Greatest Hits since I was 18 or so, I happen to know that the second sentence refers to one of his lesser-known songs. I don't know how many people who listen to this album would catch that. Or how many such references I miss.

"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
A love song that, like all love songs, could be addressed either to a person or to God. Every now and then Dylan writes what seems to be a conventional love song, and I tend not to like them. I didn't like "To Make You Feel My Love" on Time Out of Mind and moreover thought it was totally out of place on that album. Not surprisingly, it was covered by some other artists. Anyway, this is good, but not one of my favorites.

"Black Rider"
I'd call this "pretty good": an interesting lyric, not much musically. As with "Multitudes," it isn't overly long, which is good.

"Goodbye Jimmy Reed"
I love this one. It sounds like Jimmy Reed and the lyrics are sharp. It's a tribute to Reed, with musical and lyrical allusions to some of his songs, and weighted with a sense that he had something that we still need.

"Mother of Muses"
Slow, kind of pretty, a sort of prayer. But I'm afraid I don't care much for it.

"Crossing the Rubicon"
Now this is a killer. There's a pattern in my reactions here: a preference for the more rock-oriented and sharp-tongued songs. This one is both. The more I hear it the more I like it, and want to say it's up there with some of his classics. As the title suggests, it's about a moment of decision and determination in the face of long odds, and it's very powerful:

Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond:
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon

"Key West"
I really wanted to like this one. I've never been to Key West but from what I've seen and heard it must be an enchanting place. This song should enchant, but for me at any rate it does not. And at nine and a half minutes it goes on too long to suit me.

"Murder Most Foul"
Now I will contradict what I said about the pattern of my reactions. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.") Superficially this song is like "Multitudes"--really just a recitation over a musical background. And I did not expect to like a 17-minute Dylan song. I expected it to go off the rails, like the long closing song on Time Out of Mind, which spends too much time on a silly episode apparently sparked by rhyming "legs" and "eggs."

This is where the "generations" stuff comes in. In the post I mentioned earlier I argued that if we're going to classify people in that way one of the groups should include those born between roughly 1940 and 1960--which is to say those who had the experience of growing up in the 25 years or so following the end of World War II. 

For better or worse, it's a feature of the constantly changing modern world that if you live a normal three-score-and-ten or more you're going to see the world you grew up in disappear. I've seen it happen to my parents and their parents and now it's happening to me. Naturally it often seems to the passing generation that the changes are for the worse, but whether that's actually the case or not, it's a sad thing.

This song is Dylan's farewell to the world he and I grew up in. Or rather to the America we grew up in. And it's a lament, which he hangs on the myth of the Kennedy assassination. I call it a myth because that event became almost immediately a symbol that was at least half-detached from the reality. I was never caught up in the Kennedy mystique--it wasn't a political thing, I guess I just don't care much for Glorious Leader cults. And I never thought much of the idea that the nation lost its innocence at his assassination, and so forth. (America innocent? Oh, come on.) But there is a kernel of truth there: there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning.

Over a quiet and somber background of piano and bowed bass, the song begins with the assassination and then begins branching out into cultural references. A little more than halfway through, it becomes a litany.

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Wolfman is requested to "play" one after another mid-century image: songs, movies, people.

Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and All That Jazz
Play something for The Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel play Pretty Boy Floyd

The instrumentation grows slightly as it goes on, including a bass drum that sounds as big as a room. It's funeral music for a funeral song or poem, and I find it very moving. The thing about the times is, they never stop changing. 

Two By Dvorak

I'm continuing my journey through the boxes of LPs which I looted from the apartment of the recently deceased Monsignor James Dorrill of the Archdiocese of Mobile. (See this post.) He had no known living relatives, or if he did they were distant and/or uninterested in taking possession of his things.

I really don't know much of Dvorak's work. In fact I can only say I know the New World Symphony, in the sense that I've heard it more than once or twice and am somewhat familiar with it  I've heard others, but not really become familiar with them.

Serenade in E Major for Strings, Op. 22

In apparent contradiction to what I just said, I recognized it instantly, and thought I had a(nother) recording of it. But I don't. So I'm puzzled about my history with this work. The LP I was thinking of is a collection of short orchestral pieces, and the Dvorak work on it is the Nocturne for Strings in B, Opus 40; a very beautiful piece if I remember correctly. And so is this one. But where have I heard it before, and heard it enough to recognize it again? I am puzzled.

But anyway, this is a very beautiful work, full of memorable tunes, of which the opening of the first movement might be the most memorable--an instant grabber--and rather more substantial than the word "serenade" suggests to me. It's in five movements, runs for roughly thirty minutes, and is symphonic in general structure. If the composer had thought to ask me I would have suggested calling it a symphony for strings. Perhaps it's on the light side for a symphony, but don't be fooled by "serenade" into thinking that it's merely pretty.

The recording is by Rafael Kubelik and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on the London label. It's monaural and I doubt it was issued any later than the mid-1950s. I can't say that the recording as such, either the performance or the sonics, strike me as exceptional, though the sound is very good for its time.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

As far as I'm aware I'd never heard this symphony before. It is a great one, immediately becoming a favorite for me. My naive remark to myself was "like Brahms but sunnier." And I like Brahms a lot. And "sunnier" does not mean "better," because I like Brahms's somberness a lot. But there does seem to me to be some kind of kinship there.

And apparently it's also a great performance. When I took the LP off the shelf I saw that it was on the Everest label and groaned. If I had noticed that when I was giving away the LPs out of this haul that I didn't really want, it would have gone, too. Or maybe not, because it's Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra. But Everest was, in my experience, back in the '60s a rather low-rent label that apparently specialized in licensing and producing foreign recordings for the American market. Generally the packaging was distinctly low-budget, and the sound not so great, though that could have been the fault of the original recordings.

After one hearing of this disk, I thought "well, Everest or not, it seems fine." After the third or fourth hearing I thought "Is it just me or is this a really excellent performance?" As I'm always pointing out, I don't have a great ear for the nuances of classical performance, especially conducting. But there seemed to be a special kind of verve and energy and crispness to this one. And the recorded sound is excellent as well, for its time (195??). So I went scouting for it on the net and learned that it is in fact a very famous recording, one that at least one critic holds to be still the best performance of the symphony. If you are a fan of Dvorak and/or this symphony, you might want to seek it out. Or maybe you already have it.

The LP also contains a Scherzo Capriccioso as the last track. I pretty much hate it when record companies add filler like that; I don't want to hear some different and unrelated work immediately after, for instance, Dvorak's 8th. Moreover, I admit to a distinct aversion to any music with a title containing the word "cappricio" or, in this case, "cappriccioso," which I take to mean "like a cappricio, but more so." I have no explanation for this...well, I guess that's not exactly true. I have a negative mental association which suggests that the music is going to be light, busy, and not really very interesting. This may be, probably is, totally unfair. Nevertheless I only allowed it to play once, and that was because I couldn't get to the turntable to lift the needle before it began. I may go back to it someday.

Addendum: I figured out why/how I know the Serenade. I have it in mp3 format: Jakob Hruska conducting the Prague Philharmonia.

(I still don't have internet access at home. I'm doing this from my wife's office.)

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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