Wednesday, January 22, 2014

In search of the new, new wave.......

John Cale – Paris 1919

        I’ve been meaning to pick up the speed a bit on my quest to get everything John Cale ever released (which is a pretty sizeable catalog at this point). Letsee……I got his first album – Vintage Violence – when I was just getting out of high school.
About 25 years later I bought my second John Cale album – the second release of his – the duet with Terry Reily – The Church of Anthrax.
Whoah! I liked that a lot better than the first one. Then I saw this clip of John Cale live:
Well, that threw me for a loop and a half! I never saw any other footage of a John Cale performance ever in my life. Apparently this song / performance art piece was a steady feature of his live shows of the era (and not just a one-off spasm). Still, pretty shocking stuff! I ended up with my third John Cale album this weekend when I bought a reissue of his well-regarded classic “Paris 1919”. I’d had World War I on my mind lately, so it was a combination of influences for me – picking up the pace on John Cale and a bunch of WWI thoughts in my noggin.
I played this record for the second time tonight. I really like the music - beautifully orchestrated. The tracks that feature the orchestra (The UCLA Symphony Orchestra to be exact) were organized by a guy with a familiar name to me: Joel Druckman! Mr. Druckman has the unlikely distinction of having played bass for The Bonzo Dog Band during the period of time when they recorded their seminal LP “The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse”. He was the “American Bonzo”. Then he apparently became involved with orchestral music in LA where he still lives (I think?). He is credited on the back cover of the Cale LP. Aside from the orchestra, the main backing (rock) band on the disc is none other than – Little Feat! Quite an unlikely assemblage of characters! So the music is top notch.

Ah, but the words. This is another lyrically inscrutable piece of work. John Cale is really a brilliant talent. Yet, when I read along with the lyric sheet, I’m left to wonder who he’s singing to because I can’t make much sense from his references. There’s a vague thread relating to Post-WWI Europe. Yet it’s mixed in with all sorts of other obscure stuff – I just haven’t got much of a clue. So, my critical mind is thwarted and my intuitive mind has to take over. Intuitively, there feels like a sense of uneasy resignation in this music. The words, however obscure, are replete with strangely beautiful imagery. On the title track he refers to a coffin as an “iron drum”. At least that’s what I think he’s getting at. An odd mix of the cheerful and the morose.

Listening to “Paris 1919” again tonight, the record ended and left me with a loss over what to listen to next. I was left feeling so disconnected and drained there was only one record that made sense:

Sun Ra and His Arkestra – Bad & Beautiful

The copy I have of this record is the early 70s ABC / Impulse reissue that supposedly Sun Ra himself eventually disowned (along with the rest of the reissues that came out on Impulse! of his earlier recordings). I don’t know – somehow the “fake stereo” isn’t as offensive to me here. Well, considering how funky the original recording is anyway – it’s not that big of a deal! Yet, it is precisely the sound of the record that pulls me in. There is some great jazz playing here, but the entire album sounds like you are listening to a band playing in a big empty room, but from down the hall and out of sight. It’s an eerie sound. And the music has a ramshackle groove adding to the general sense of alienation going on. Yet! There is at least one totally beautiful blues here – Search Light Blues. I think the soloist is tenor man John Gilmore (one of the least heralded giants of the instrument) – his solo here is especially inspired and memorable. So, while the sound may be BAD, the music is BEAUTIFUL. Heh!

So anyway I’ve also been looking for the new, new wave………

This whole notion of profiling some new music releases is a lot more complicated than I’d bargained for. Sure, I can download anything easily enough. The real question is – what? I know I recently spent some time listening to The Black Keys on spotify. I thought the music was pretty good, but I had no desire to purchase the album since the stream sounded good enough for me (surprise!). If I wanted to hear it again I’d just as soon stream it from spotify again. This must be why a growing number of artists are starting to question the whole free streaming music server thing. Yet, for me there is another angle – so much modern music is readily available for free in other places like supermarkets, stores and the good old radio. Not that I’m a big radio listener, but I feel like I hear plenty. (Why would I want to own a Ke$ha CD or download? I hear enough of that already.)

What I’m interested in are artists who are out there doing something great that should be more popular or at least connected to a larger audience. That’s the kind of thing that fascinates me more than the usual stuff on popular radio. Unfortunately, I’m no John Peel. He was known for listening to stacks of cassettes sent in to his radio program – literally sifting through the proverbial haystacks for the golden needles. And he did find them, but that’s a lot of listening time spent getting the good stuff sorted out from the dreck.

The best new music exposure-filter for me has been the “word-of-mouth” filter. There was a time I listened to radio. There was a time I had a subscription to a very hip and vibration-diverse magazine. Well, the rag done quit and radio ain’t the same no more. Even the local college radio station has turned into the Fake Reggae station. Puke-tastic! I get the best tips from friends – both from the “meat zone” and the “inter-zone”. So what I’m gonna do is this:  THE BATTLE between the new sounds. One contestant from the mainstream – purportedly the BEST the mainstream has to offer. Then, the challenger from the OBSCURE, UNDERGROUND, MARGINALIZED and (egads!) LOCAL zone.  The two bands / artists / yodellers are gonna duke it out right here and I get to be the ref. Got that? Good, lets go………

First up :

Young the Giant – s/t  - 2010

This is their first album (do albums really matter to “new” artists anymore – that’s a whole other discussion….). I would have played their new release – listed at the #2 spot on amazon's mp3 chart – but it isn’t on spotify yet. The first one is, though. According to wiki, the debut got lots of stars – 5 stars, 10 stars…whatever. People liked this. Know what? I like this too. Hard not to like finely crafted, sonically pleasing rock/pop. Even the vocals are non-annoying. Slightly quirky even. Yet, not at all offensive. That is both the strength and the weakness of this album. The music sounds like a band – a modern band. I really hope what I’m hearing are actual instruments. Hard to tell since the production has that sonic “airbrushed” stamp to it. I do like rough edges. Mistakes. It could be an illusion though. Maybe a little more chance-taking would spiffy this up. This record sounds good, but maybe too good. I’m not reaching to turn it off. But I’m not reaching to turn it up either. I am not offended. I have no idea about the group’s image – they could be dressed up in alligator costumes for all I know. Yet, how new is this album really? I’m actually interested in the new one now. Is it better? Worse? More memorable (beyond being non-offensive)? Is this music for aging hipsters? I need to hear something more obnoxious next time – this is too damned friendly! I refuse to quote lyrics. I’m not a lyric guy anyway. This album was designed to be commercial.

The Challenger:
TriBeCaStan – New Songs from the Old Country  - 2013

   If there is any doubt about the authenticity of the human element in a new music release, this new album from TriBeCaStan lays those fears to rest post haste, squire. This is one heck of a motley assortment of whistle-blowers, clay pot-bangers, zither strummers, pied pipers and wobble-board wobblers the likes of which th’world hath not visaged befor’n. Yea, this is no mere Scottish klezmer polka improv and Chinese opera ensemble for the helluvit. There’s magnificent melodies and Siamese-cat-like interplay between and betwixt aforementioned talented musicians abounding. The overall aesthetic is easily summed up by a provocatively titled track – the fifth down from the top – “Corned Beef and Sake”. Indeed the Celtic and the Japanese doth compliment each other quite well. In the hands of lesser artists, all of this Persian-ocarina and sitar-funk banjolele bashing might sound forced or trite (or simply flat-out bonkers). Worse still, it could resemble an awkward and cold cocktail party full of total strangers from different nations all standing around avoiding each other awash in alienation and suspicion, sheepishly peering over their exotic beverages and wishing they were somewhere else. But, no! Lo! This is the multicultural party album of the year! The music is the star of the show with the textures of the instruments carefully blended as a master chef knows how to bring out the most delicious flavors from just the right blend of spices and juices. I can only imagine how the music must come to life in a personal appearance – a pleasure I look forward to in the hopefully-not-so-distant future. Is this music “commercial”? Perhaps for real human beings – organically connected to the earth and stars. All earthly and interplanetary beings can groove on these vibrations – just sign up for TriBeCaStan-ways incorporated, corporeal, cornucopia and calliope-bound!

The Verdict?    TriBeCaStan wins by a wide margin of creativity, humanity and mad-crazy flava!

Keep seeking and grooving!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year’s Resolution – Part One: A little more NEW with the Old


     I have been having way more fun keeping up with my two music blogs than I had originally thought I would when I started them a few years ago. I’ve received some awfully nice compliments from folks who have stopped by and shared encouraging words about my writing. Really, this is just a side hobby for me. I like to write, but this is strictly amateur hour here. Lester Bangs was familiar with more literature at 20 than I’ll probably ever be (and I passed 20 a long time ago). Passion is passion, though, so I’ll continue to keep having fun.

    As the entries have been rolling by I have noticed patterns in my listening and writing behaviors. One of the patterns has caused me some slight unease. I don’t really seek out “new” music – or if I do, it is very rare and I certainly don’t spotlight anything “new” here. As it happens I did purchase a few new releases, albiet by older artists. It’s still a step in the right direction. Truth be told, I’d have a hard time evaluating totally “new” artists. Music has taken some strange directions over the past ten years at least. Yet I am hopeful that maybe some really new sounds might emerge in the next few years since we are poised to leave the last “cultural decade” behind. (Cultural decades usually start to shift approximately three years into a new chronological decade and run over a few years into the next. For example, the 1960s as we define them culturally didn’t really kick in until about 1964 or so – or so they say……heh heh!)

    So, I’ve decided that I must feature some kind of “new” music more frequently in my posts here. This is indeed a challenge since, to put it bluntly, I like OLD SHIT. I mean really old shit too. Like Greogian Chants are totally fair game to me. Medieval music? Hell yeah! Well, at least on this blog I rein it in a bit. For the really arcane junk please refer to my other blog:

    Anyway, as suspicious as I am about “new” music I think it’s time to give the living and working musicians some attention. In addition to checking out new music I’m also going to give downloading (legally) another few shots (at least). I’ve actually managed to download some great music over the last few years. The trouble is remembering to access those downloads more frequently – I can’t help it – physical media is just MORE FUN for me. If there was a way to make accessing digital files on a computer somehow fun I’d do that more often. I’m convinced that is the big hurdle for the analog-inclined. Sure, it’s convenient. Is it FUN? Not yet, I’m afraid.

    Aside from convenience, downloading can also be cost-effective. Especially during the winter when available funds tend to go towards keeping the heat on, those expensive purchases usually take a back seat. There’s also the matter of instant gratification. Yesterday I read a great article on Guy Clark which I can heartily recommend here:

I’d actually known about Guy Clark for awhile now – since I saw the documentary on Townes Van Zandt “Be Here to Love Me” in 2006. I’ll get to that story in a minute. I’d actually heard a Guy Clark song way before that when I bought a CD of Mallard – Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band without the Captain (they defected en masse in 1975). Taking the lead vocal slot in Mallard was a guy named Sam Galpin. He had a gruff voice, but otherwise didn’t seem to sound very comfortable with the material in general with one exception – a Guy Clark song called “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. On its own – it’s a great song. On the Mallard album, while it is one of Galpin’s more successful vocals, it doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of the music on the record. Although this is one of Guy Clark’s signature tunes I have yet to hear his version (or anyone else’s).

    In fact, until last night I’d never picked up any of Guy Clark’s albums. Courtesy of the article I linked above, I was compelled to download his new album “My Favorite Picture of You”. I had actually seen a picture of the front cover before I read the article which already piqued my interest a few weeks ago. The title song refers to an old polaroid shot Clark is seen holding in front of the camera of his wife Susanna, who was a songwriter herself as well as his muse until her passing last year.

If you’ve read the article I linked you’d already know that and a lot more. Clark has suffered from some pretty serious health issues since the early 2000’s and the voice on the new album is the voice of a survivor. Yet, there are great stories, ideas, insights in every song. With so many people who might pick up a guitar and start writing some words, composing a song, what we listeners look for is a new way to see things – maybe common things that we deal with every day – from a new perspective. With the great catalog of recorded music now stretching back in time over one hundred years, this is no easy feat. One could easily dismiss the new in favor of the concept that “all the great songs have already been written”. Well, Guy Clark’s new album proves that theory to be flat-out wrong.

    The album opens with a laid-back country waltz that’s essentially an ode to country waltzes and the down home pleasures to be experienced at the local hoe-down on Saturday night. The melody sounds like it belongs to a classic song from the days of yore. I love this kind of song! There’s another waltz down the lineup, though it’s a somewhat lonelier story – waltzes have that aura about them. The rest of the program runs the gamut from songs about the inhumanities and indignities suffered by illegal immigrants risking everything to cross the border from Mexico to the US (El Coyote), a song about soldiers coming home from war (Heroes) and the downside of having a good time all the time (The High Price of Inspiration). In each song, there’s a new twist to each of these classic themes. If I were a really astute reviewer I’d be singling out couplets of lyrics to illustrate Guy Clark’s brilliance. But you don’t need me to do that – you’ll notice those beautiful lines all on your own. Just take my word – download this great album. You’ll return to it frequently. Put it on repeat on the ipod. Let it soak in.

       Once you’ve got the new Guy Clark album downloaded, take a few hours out of your time to watch the Townes Van Zandt documentary. This is where I first encountered Guy and Susanna Clark. I saw the trailer for the film online (thanks to the old Bedazzled website). I was so impressed with that trailer I went out of my way to find the documentary. I was so impressed with the documentary it ended up being one of those rare films that I watched over and over and over all throughout a winter of discontent in my life. In fact, I’ve been hesitant to recommend this film to friends because I thought it might say more about me than I’d care to let on – Townes Van Zandt was a brilliant artist, but ultimately a highly self-destructive character the likes of which I don’t have much patience for in my real life, truth be told. Townes wrote great songs, but he was one severely irresponsible guy who ended up hurting a lot of people close to him because of his reckless life.

    But I’m not here to trash Townes Van Zandt the person because I think even he would agree that would be too easy to do. The film goes a long way to trace how folks like Townes develop. He was a romantic figure and the film makes one thing clear – his love of music held the number one place in his heart pretty much above everything else. That’s a very romantic sentiment, but as his son JT says in the film – there’s more to life than just writing songs. Unfortunately, it could be argued that the number two slot in Townes’ life was held by getting high and that’s what ends the film and ends his life. It’s hard to celebrate a man’s life who consistently made such poor choices, even if it was in the name of furthering his art. I sure like Townes’ music, but I’m not a fan of him as a person. I guess this is the conundrum that kept me watching that film over and over for months on end while I was going through a fairly painful time in my own life. And maybe that’s where Townes’ music retains its value. Somehow he managed to write songs that gave the most destitute characters one could imagine a legitimate and literate voice. What’s more disturbing is how, in his better performances, he seemed to BECOME those characters adding to the drama of the performance. Here’s my favorite example – one of the most gut-churning, utterly hopeless songs I’ve ever heard in my life – “Marie”:

That performance gives me chills.

    Back to Guy and Susanna……..they both featured prominently in the Townes documentary since they both featured prominently in his actual life. Some of my favorite moments in that film are of Guy and Susanna playing off each other talking about Townes. They just seemed like the kind of people you’d want to spend lots of time around just because they were so cool. And apparently lots of folks felt the same way over the years since they were known to host the best get-togethers for budding songwriters in the Nashville area.

    So I’d kept Guy Clark in the back of my mind. When I saw the new album cover and read the story – I hadn’t known about Susanna’s passing – well, for FIVE DOLLARS I’m downloading that album. And I’m going to suggest you do the same. Now, if I can only figure out how to make playing music off my computer more fun………..

(For what it’s worth – Townes Van Zandt passed away New Years Day in 1997. Guy Clark is workin’ hard to be ready for some shows in the spring of 2014 – if he’s anywhere near me I’m going to see him! Keep a light in the window……)