Thursday, January 27, 2011

I didn't know Classical music was broken.............

NPR posed the question "How do we fix Classical Music?" and left the window open for folks to comment. A kind of democratic "What should be done about this?" deal. Though I believe the intended question really was - how can the "Classical" music world entice more people to listen - perhaps beyond the comfort zone of popular music? There are some interesting observations and theories. The LP cover above is an example of my own quest - I found a stone mint copy of this great Richard Strauss record at a thrift store this week for 50 cents! Old classical vinyl is plentiful and cheap and often can be found in beautiful shape. It's not all home runs, but for the price one can afford to experiment a little.
Here's one of my favorite responses on the NPR site:

            "G.B. Shaw said the greatest ideas are born as blasphemies and die as dogma. So it goes with the innovations of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. There is a young generation of musicians and listeners who are ready to be transported by anything, if it's compelling. The only real difference between a "composer" and a songwriter is in the degree of challenge the composer is willing to issue to a listener. Contemporaries freaked out over Beethoven's late quartets, and they were right to! It's audacious stuff. Today it might sound more familiar, unless you really listen to it. A composer asks to be really listened to. That's the only distinction I can make between popular and classical music. So compose what you love and expect us to really listen."

       A poster using the pseudonym  "Opervati" wrote the above quote and I think it's quite an astute observation concerning what composers might expect from listeners. Here's a link to the rest of the article - enjoy!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

If you live long enough, your weirdness could be celebrated……..

       About seven years ago, I had a subscription to Discoveries magazine – a record collecting rag published every two months or so. In 2003, an interesting column popped up for a few issues and then disappeared – “Thrift store records and cheap red wine”. The author would scour his neighborhood Salvation Army for weird old vinyl LPs, buy some odd imported cheap red wine and write a critique – one LP per bottle of vino. It made for some entertaining reading, but the review about an enigmatic classical pianist by the name of Nyireyghazi was one of the most persuasive pieces of writing about music I’ve ever encountered. I found a site where somebody copied this whole article (though the author's name is misspelled) and you can read it here:               

It’s a great read – the author is a pretty talented writer and musician named Lane Steinberg. The line from the review that really grabbed me was “This record makes Skip James sound like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.” To me, this was a glowing recommendation – almost like a challenge. “Must get my hands on a copy of this,” says me. But somehow, I got sidetracked and forgot about the article until about a month ago when I uncovered the old magazine.

I had to scour ebay for a vinyl copy since this is not on CD (and not likely to be in the near future I reckon). I spotted a cheap one as a “buy it now” deal and while I was waiting for it to arrive I started checking out other Liszt stuff on youtube to get a feel for what the music sounds like when performed by reasonably sane musicians. I was surprised to discover I knew at least one Liszt piece pretty well – the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. You know it too! Remember that Bugs Bunny cartoon – you know, the one where Bugs is playing the piano? Okay here it is:
So that’s Liszt. Anyway – Liszt was a character in his own right and composed some pretty far out stuff for the era in which he lived and died (1800’s).

But back to Nyireyghazi. There are now a few tribute websites devoted to this mad pianist – one of them has a link to a TV report from the 1970’s profiling Nyireyghazi’s rediscovery. Here’s the site where you can see the documentary:

Through this site I discovered a biography was written about Nyireyghazi that was published three years ago (small wonder these things get published at all). Amazon came through here with a $4 paperback edition. I’m about halfway through the book now and what a crazy life! Did the creators of Forest Gump know about Nyireyghazi? Here’s a quick glance at who he was:               
        A child prodigy (played for the Queen of England at 8 years old!), virtuoso by his 20’s, but several factors collided which left him drifting – sometimes homeless on park benches for……….* gulp *    DECADES………… occasionally rubbing shoulders with movie stars, gangsters, politicians  and racking up a total of TEN WIVES over the course of his life. He was rediscovered in his  *gulp *  70’s (!!) whereupon he cut records for Columbia, toured Japan and then………drifted back into pretty grim poverty. And that’s the SHORT version of what could possibly be described as the most improbable, WTF life of a musician that I’ve ever encountered.

The album finally arrived a few days ago (the package was bent in shipping, but amazingly the records were not damaged - kind of appropriate to the music somehow). I sat listening to it as I was typing. This is possibly the most pain-soaked record I’ve ever heard in my life. If Lester Bangs had heard this record he would have LOVED it. Nyireyghazi’s technique was shot to hell by the time he cut these sides, but the soul really shines through. This is not “pristine” and shiny classical music – it’s raw, in your face and real, but still somehow dignified (an irony since the musician in question had, well, a pretty loose interpretation of the concept of dignity – he lived like a rock star in more ways than one!). Arnold Schoenberg apparently loved him. Otto Klemperer hated him. Audiences were divided too – pretty much through his whole life. The Columbia record unfortunately does not reflect the pristine technique that reviews of his earlier performances speak of. But it does reflect his aesthetic – which is controversial still and raises the question: “Does so-called Classical music demand precision over soul?” Are these qualities mutually exclusive? Can a performance be artistically valid if the performer takes liberties with the composition and makes mistakes? What is music all about, anyway?

I think Nyireyghazi was probably doomed to be a fringe-artist anyway – no matter how gifted he was as a young man, he carved out a pretty obscure niche as a controversial interpreter of a Romantic composer/pianist (Liszt) who had fallen out of favor (and still isn’t widely regarded) with the general public. In his own way, he was as far out as Sun Ra, almost as ubiquitous and misunderstood in his lifetime, but – and this is really saying something – I think not destined to be as widely remembered. Now if Nyireyghazi had performed wearing a space helmet………………..

Monday, January 17, 2011

78's can sure sound GREAT!

    This is a picture of what 78 collectors call a "Scroll Victor" - if you look at the record label there's some scroll-work to the design. These discs are noted for being some of the best sounding 78 discs ever produced. How good can they sound? Well, I don't have any (yet) in my own collection - someday I'd love to be set up for these things, but there are folks with their own youtube channels that specialize in uploading quality videos of records from their collection - and even with youtube's compromised sound you can hear just how awesome these things can be. Here's one example from 1932:
This particular youtuber has his own channel as well - full of this stuff. See here for more:

Apparently, many of these RCA Victor recordings were made in an old, deconsecrated  church in Camden NJ - with one single microphone! Pretty stunning sound for such spartan conditions, eh? Enjoy!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Roads Paved with Vinyl

These ramblings of mine are not about a particular artist, album or even production. You'll not read about the high fidelity quadrophonic seperations, or the benifits of an adamantium tipped needle. I want to talk about the experience of a record collector, and the elation of 'The Find'.

There is something about knowing that a day is put aside to go off to a far off town, gussing up the car and having wonderful conversation with a knowledgeable fellow musicologist (and Better Friend) to find a used record store. The travelling is always something special when you see unique places in clean town that aren't so familiar and so everyday hum-drum. Sampling different Cole Slaw with a diner-burger.. These are just the small points.

The excitement of the voyage from the car door to the store door. (hoping they haven't closed down or that they're open on Sundays). Hearing the scratchy old records played on equipment valued at just above my car. Searching through unorganized bins to find the secret treasure you've never seen before, or haven't seen since you were a kid, or a cover that is so funny (or so bad, or so weird) that you HAVE to have it!

Who remembers looking at album covers, searching for hidden meanings that relate to the music that you're listening to for the first time? Staring at the colors and shapes trying to figure out just what it all means. I remember. I remember discovering the Yes-Fragile album for the first time. I swear I went on the 'Trip' all the big kids were talking about as I listened with my headphones and stared at the cover.

Remember the 'goodies' you'd find in a new record once you took off the cellophane? The Earth, Wind and Fire poster, the Magical Mystery Tour booklet with the GREAT pictures and terrible prose? or the oversized Band-Aid with a poem scribbled on it. (10 points to you if you know what album that was in!) My cellophane never lasted till I got home; most often it didn't make it through the parking lot. The inner sleeves, the smell of virgin vinyl... Ahhh!

And who remembers the bargain bins at your local department store? Can anyone describe the feeling of getting the last elusive Utopia album that completed your set of Rundgren discs? after searching for 2 years? for $1.99?!?!?!

Or in that used record store discovering something you once has and loved, and forgot about. that you recognize immediately with just that split second glance...and it all comes back.

Or seeing that NRBQ at Yankee Stadium album..(the cover is an empty Yankee Stadium with a teeny tiny itty bitty NRBQ guys in the bleacher) that always makes me laugh! I'm smiling thinking about it now! Ever open an album to find colored vinyl or a bonus 45? Can't get that from iTunes!

These things only a record collector can feel, its reserved only for us

and we haven't even played the Mutha yet!

Christopher Ceriello

What exactly is this record about?


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk – 1979

        I find myself being hypercritical of current popular music – there’s a lot not to like, it seems. But there was a time when a new, hyped-up record not only appealed to me on a mainstream level, but could also present something unexpected – even possibly avant-garde. For those of us who grew up in the 70’s, some music was unavoidable – especially in the era of the home stereo that was in some cases a status-symbol the way flat-screen TVs are today. And the most common "software" on those home stereos were LPs -  vinyl records. Rock music particularly evolved into a big business in the 70’s – all that advertising paid off.  Records went “platinum” overnight for the first time – sales were at a peak for music products (even in the inflation-plagued late 70’s).

        One of the most ubiquitous slabs of vinyl in the late 70’s was Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” LP. It was like the theory about spiders – no matter where you are there’s one somewhere near you. Rumours was THE record of 1977 – it had everything going for it – several hit singles, some ballads, some edgy material. Certainly helped to define that smooth-rock, California slick sound. The kind of success that any musician/band/whatever dreams of and, in some strange way, can come to dread. Why dread? Because success brings pressure to continue or top what you’ve just done. Where do you go when you’ve reached the top? After two years of riding Rumours for all it was worth – Fleetwood Mac had two choices, essentially:  either produce Rumours II or……..something else. Fortunately, they chose the something else – success can also bring a little slack from the record company, a willingness to follow the instincts of the artists. Although the next record was not going to be a carbon-copy of the blockbuster, it had to be something BIG. To this end Fleetwood Mac spent thousands (supposedly constructing a new studio designed especially for this record) and, ultimately, produced – a sizable end product. The status symbol among status symbols of 70’s rock and roll success and excess – THE DOUBLE ALBUM. Funny to think that double albums in those days would later fit on one compact disc (as Tusk indeed does). But a double album was a STATEMENT in those days – like, “We’re so awesome and brimming over with fabulous ideas and creative juice – we’ve got to whip it on you big time!”

            Based on the insane success of Rumours, the record label – Warner Brothers – was ready to mass-produce trainloads of the new record. When the finished products hit the stores it was a massive symbol of 70’s excess gone wild. A double album with each record housed in not one, but TWO custom inner-sleeves (one inside the other – what a pain in the ass to get to each record!). Each copy of the record carried the premium price tag of $15.98! In 1979 dollars, that was some coin – even for a new double record. But, hey – this is Fleetwood Mac and those units were expected to fly off the shelves. At least one hit single helped to push sales along – Stevie Nicks’ “Sara”. But, as 1979 wore on – and the economy skittered along towards the recession that would characterize the early 80’s – it seems that the record company had overestimated demand and oversupplied the market with these darned albums. Within a short space of time – that same $15 double album could be seen in record shops with a $2.99 price tag (!) and a saw-cut made in the cover (what were known as cut-outs – purposely damaged units that could be sold at a bargain price – the records inside the sleeve were fine, just the covers were clipped). Seems that more than one record company pulled the same bone-headed move and there was indeed a glut of LPs in the market with not enough buyers. Tusk, as a result, would carry a bit of a stigma – it sold respectably, but seeing that thing in the cut-out bins didn’t look too impressive.

              My family eventually wound up with a copy – aside from “Sara” the only other high-profile song was the title track which was an unlikely choice for a single since it was a weird chant-piece/drum solo thing augmented by the UCLA Marching Band – not exactly the stuff of mainstream pop. The programming – the flow of songs from one to the other – would prove to polarize listeners. In between tracks that had that identifiable, slick Fleetwood Mac vibe (mostly the work of the two female vocalists) were these quirky, weird sounding Lindsey Buckingham songs – kinda herky-jerky, almost PUNK-like ditties. The resulting listening experience was such a schizoid affair – most folks would complain that’s what killed any momentum that might have rocketed the album into the stratosphere of rock magnificence. Nowadays I really like the quirky stuff, but that’s not where the meat of this record really is. Tusk – as a single release – strikes me as what could be considered Stevie Nicks’ finest moment on record. “Sara” in fact is her weakest contribution to the album. And I’m not exactly a big Stevie Nicks fan, but her delivery on the songs she brings to this record is perpetually captivating – if I’m playing the record straight through I usually have to stop whatever I’m doing just to pay attention to her songs. There’s some struggle going on in her voice – some aching, intangible dread – some cutting psychological anguish that undermines the whole slick/success/California fa├žade. Much more so than Buckingham’s wacko-paranoia-sound collages (as fun as those are). Listen to her performance on the track “Storms” – its goosebump inducing – at least for me!

            I also have to make mention about the first song on the record – song one, side one – Christine McVie’s “Over and Over”. It’s a pretty slow, ballad-y song. I LOVE records that start with a slow groove like this. So many albums take the (well planned, but now overdone) George Martin approach of starting off with the “potboiler” – a real up-tempo rocker. It’s a cool curveball to get a slow-paced track as the leadoff on an  album – check the first Band album (Music from Big Pink) and Badfinger’s LP “Straight Up” for similar approaches (both predating Tusk). It was a classy move on Fleetwood Mac’s part and I just eat stuff like this up!

          Tusk had a sneaky moment stuck in as well. For those of you who know about the origins of the band - Fleetwood Mac started in England as a blues band by a frightfully gifted guitarist named Peter Green. Lots can be found on the internet about Peter Green (after a pretty successful run - especially in Europe - Green left the band he founded under an avalanche of personal problems in 1971). Peter Green would periodically make music when he felt like it, but would never regain the momentum he had going when he was in charge of Fleetwood Mac. In the late 70's, during the recording of Tusk, the band managed to entice Green to play - uncredited, no less - on one track - a brooding song called "Brown Eyes". If you listen to that song there's a distinctly different guitar tone featured that tries to break into a solo as the song fades (they should have included more of that solo!). So if this record isn't cool enough - the inclusion of Peter Green seals its awesomeness. (I'll write another post on the great Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac in the near future. BB King went on record saying that Peter Green was the BEST of the English blues guitarists. I won't argue with BB).

          The vinyl records also reveal an exquisitely produced record – yes, some slick stuff, but listen to how those cymbals were recorded for example. They just jump out of the grooves in a life-like way. Tusk is a sonic carnival – a real analog showcase. Records would start to sound cold and two-dimensional after this. It’s like the last great hurrah for this kind of recording. Compared to today’s popular sounds – it’s like an audiophile feast for the ears. I don’t know what the CDs sound like – I usually play my LPs. But I’ll bet even common CD copies of this thing would sound really bloody amazing to the average listener today. It isn’t often that I play this record – but I do try to at least once a year. There were risks taken here that I don’t think were ever repeated by Fleetwood Mac again. The pressure to produce hits became too great to indulge in excessive creativity – song or sound wise – ever again. Big-budget blockbuster LPs would go the way of the big, gas-guzzling Lincoln Continentals of the 70’s. But the ride would never be anywhere near as smooth………………….

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Creedence Clearwater Revival and Television (the band)

  Okay – it’s time to get things cookin’ here. Enough with the overarching concepts and philosophy. Let’s get down to bizniss………

  I was agonizing about my first post here and what I’d like to profile. Inspiration hit and two groups emerged – one popular, one obscure. Both from the US, but originating on opposite coasts. I listened to music from each group tonight and they seemed to represent some qualities that I relate to and value. Plus, it’s 20th century rock music in both cases essentially. Eventually I’ll move into genres that I’m even less qualified to write about – jazz, classical – but for now I’ll start with that rapidly disappearing ensemble – the interesting rock band! The popular group gets first mention………..

 When was the last time you cranked up some Creedence Clearwater Revival? Oh, man……not Proud Mary again! That’s like the only song even the unhip wedding bands used to know (the token “rock song” you could count on at weddings back in the day….).  Listen – forget Proud Mary (Ike and Tina Turner actually smoked that song way better than CCR anyway, but I digress……..). When CCR hit in the late 60’s / early 70’s they were the first to strike a blow for “roots rock” music. Coming out of the psychedelic weirdness of the late 60’s – they were a tough, no-bullshit return to great American roots rock and roll and came up with a white-hot string of radio friendly hits. In January 1969 – the Beatles began sessions for an aborted project that was designed to get them back in touch with their rock and roll roots and to re-discover the energy they’d had back in the early 60’s before Beatlemania hit. Well, if you’ve ever heard some of the outtakes of those sessions it’s a real downer and shocking how totally incapable the Beatles were to hit that goal. CCR took the same idea and did everything the Beatles would loved to have done – and did it their way and better – and it was nothing but home runs for like – a good two years at least! Between 1968 and through all of 1970 Creedence threw down some great music that set the standard of what it meant to really “Get Back” as the Beatles would have liked to. Maybe to compare isn’t fair – CCR was less of a collaborative venture than the Beatles were, but it hit me tonight that Creendence must have freaked the Fabs out. Just as the Beatles were imploding, CCR just burst onto the scene and stole the show.
Now, I don’t even have all of their records. I’m missing the first one and the last few. You would be doing well with those Chronicles collections (there’s a Volume I and II) – you get those and you get the essentials. But take a peek at the wikipedia entry and look at how many hit records these guys racked up in such short order! Put those songs into perspective – quite a feat – all quality stuff! I wish younger people had a band like CCR to really ignite the enthusiasm for rootsy rock and roll again. In fact, considering what CCR did with two guitars, bass and drums – they sound downright contemporary – timeless in fact – today. By the way – for years I had no idea that Creedence came out of the Bay Area in California. The Grateful Dead these guys were NOT. I would have guessed the deep south somewhere since they captured that country-rock flavor before it even had a name! Letsee – I spun the first side of the “Bayou Country” album and all of the “Green River” album tonight. I have those on LP – 80’s reissues and not bad sounding, really. Especially compared to the original vinyl pressings which are to be AVOIDED people! CCR was signed to a pretty small –in fact JAZZ - record label that liked to cut costs and those original LPs were pressed on really dogshit vinyl. Get reissue LPs or CDs – those old albums have so much surface noise they sound like bad 78s (played on the wrong equipment 78s sound like hell – played on the right equipment 78s can be an audiophile experience – seriously!!). Aside from the great sound of the band, you can’t ignore what an intense creative TEAR John Fogerty was on in those Creedence days, from a songwriting standpoint. It was like a Stevie Wonder / Elton John / in their prime white-hot streak. I think the time is right to re-discover CCR. Forget those cheesy TV ads they used to run trying to market the records like the latest Ronco product. These guys really rocked – and those vibrations they set down still groove hard!

    Now, CCR was pretty much kaput when band #2 were making their first record. These guys had the same instrumentation as CCR, but stylistically were about as far removed from roots-rock as any guitar-based band had managed to get without falling into the trappings of psychedelic rock. Ever hear of the group Television? Maybe, like me, you read about them but never heard their music. Their first record, Marquee Moon, shows up in all the hipper-than-thou lists of highly influential records that only the coolest of the cool people have ever heard, blah…blah….blah….. I usually get put off by music with that kind of a reputation, but once in awhile I’ll relent and grab something just to see what all the fuss is about. Which I did with this record. I got a cheap CD copy off amazon for like, four dollars. I wasn’t expecting much. Was I wrong. Now, first of all – this record came out in 1977, but was finished – in the can, ready to go – in 1975. There is NOTHING 1975 about this music. I’m not even sure modern music has caught up with what is going on with this record. Its like some weird species that mutated yet never reproduced and was never heard from again. Alright, maybe that’s a bit much. Television came out of the New York City area. They were a pre-punk band. Some punk people like to “claim” them I suppose, but this isn’t punk music. It’s really OTHER. Like that category you don’t know what the hell to put things in. It’s pretty polished music, but not in a slick way. Supposedly, the original idea was for the band to record at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio – a famous jazz studio – because that’s the vibe the group wanted. But it isn’t jazz music either. To be fair – singer / guitarist / songwriter Tom Verlaine has a pretty odd voice. That’s about the most punk thing on this record. But it isn’t that snarly Johnny Rotten kind of voice. Verlaine is singing some pretty weird lyrics on this album – I don’t know what these song lyrics are about. And I don’t care – it’s the music that’s so damn compelling. This record really threw me for a loop when I heard it – made me rethink what the heck was going on musically in the era of the 70’s and what people COULD be doing now. Oh, man – how I WISH musicians would just throw caution to the wind like this these days. I don’t know what any other Television records sound like. I’m a little afraid to know, since I like this one so much. I listened to the first “side” twice tonight – it’s that kind of record. I can say with certainty there were no hit singles from this band. I don’t think their record company knew what to do with them. I can’t guarantee you’re gonna like this, but it’s really interesting music – in a way that could get a person to re-evaluate what is possible with the classic two guitars, bass, drums lineup of a typical rock band. I think there are still plenty of copies of this thing on amazon for, like, three dollars used. For three bucks – it gets a major thumbs-up from me.

Rock on…………….

Monday, January 3, 2011

Catch a Groove - A general welcome message

Greetings Eulipions of the Universe! I hope that whoever reads this blog is inspired by the writers here to discover some exciting new sounds. Seek and listen!