Sunday, February 25, 2007

Never Bought A Ringtone

Like any self-respecting music fanatic, I prefer to have heard of or heard everything first (preferably before it comes out) but awards like the Grammys serve an effective winnowing function for figuring out what to listen because it is culturally significant in some way that might not have to do with musical merit. With that in mind, I still couldn't get past the third song of Stadium Arcadium, but the Dixie Chicks' Taking The Long Way Around (a band I always wanted to like but never quite made the jump) has proved to be a keeper. The title track retells the classic American rebel/road myth with economy and style. There's the self-consciously girly but still charming "pink RV with stars on the ceiling" and a passing reference to the anti-war remarks upscuttle (belabored subsequently on the song "Not Ready to Make Nice") but also a couple of awkward lyrics - the opening quatrain's reference to "...houses in the same zip codes/Where their parents live" is a little too sociological and "wouldn't kiss all the asses that they told me to" is sort of trite Nashville vulgarity, "take this job and shove it" redux.
My absolute favorite songs, the ones currently on endless repeat, tend to be where the vocal harmonies are so dense and gorgeous that I don't even notice what the songs are about ("Bitter End" and "Silent House", the former distinguished also by 12/8 meter, which I favor unreasonably). "Lubbock Or Leave It" is powered by a grainy Telecaster riff that evokes the Bakersfield modern of Dwight Yoakam, for me a preferable California country-rock reference point to the Eagles from whom I have a lifetime prejudice against the word "easy". Apparently the seemingly thin-skinned country music audience has a problem with this one too - I'm just reminded that I need to find and relisten to Terry Allen's semi-legendary Lubbock (On Everything). Finally, I was struck by the use of banjo (presumably played by Emily Erwin) - we are, I hope, through with the authenticity police scolding pop-country bands for using traditional country instrumentation as window dressing, and in fact the staccato, tactile timbre of the banjo tends to sit in the mix more like whatever the East Asian sounding stringed instrument is on the East Flatbush Project's "Tried By 12" (perhaps having Rick Rubin as producer has something to do with it).

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Dumpster Diving

One step below the dollar bin trawling, certainly in price and possibly in dignity (though rarely in degree of satisfaction), is picking records straight out of the trash. One recent foray turned up a number of items which may delight us over the coming days; Leonard Bernstein conducting his own three symphonies and Ravi Shankar on Apple Records performing the soundtrack to a film called Raga, which I suppose must be a documentary about Ravi Shankar (circa 1970, Howard Worth director), but this evening's high point is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's "Missa Romana in F", as beautiful a baroque mass as you could want (for "6 Solo Voices, 2 five voice choirs, and double orchestra"). The sacred works that get their own chapters in history books are those like Bach's Mass in B Minor, which are monumental like Michelangelo's Medici Tomb Moses but sometimes you don't want something quite that heavy, and Pergolesi provides quite a refreshing contrast.

Also appealing is the fact that the record label credit is Harmonia Mundi/BASF. I believe the current multinational chemical corporation called BASF is the same - I once thought of them (when I thought of them at all!) principally as manufacturers of magnetic recording tape who branched out into the music industry by funding and distributing smaller record labels, most famously the German jazz labels Saba and MPS which yielded several fruits of my teenage forays into the ever more obscure, particularly Association P.C.'s Erna Morena.
Further aesthetic pleasure comes from the Unipak sleeve, a style which all BASF productions I've seen came in (I suppose they held the patent), a gatefold LP jacket with the slot for the record only accessible from the middle of the inside. There's a comparable CD sleeve design - reaching randomly towards the shelf, I find the Wiretapper 14 compilation came in such a package.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Good Will Hunting

The best vinyl dollar bin trawling on the Upper West Side is (in descending order) Gryphon Books at 81st and Broadway, the church basement thrift store at 96th and Amsterdam and the Salvation Army store on 96th Street west of Broadway, with the Goodwill on 79th street a distant fourth (or fifth if you count the amount of good stuff I've gotten from sidewalk vendors), but the headline was hard to resist.

Recent acquisitions in this realm include Carolyn Hester's self-titled 2nd LP from 1960 on Tradition Records. She has the vibrato-laden soprano which, particularly through Joan Baez, came to exemplify the earnestly ethnomusicological approach to folksong "collecting" that characterized the folk revival until Bob Dylan came along and injected a dose of scruffiness. Were you to write a formula for the model early 60s folksong LP (one cover of "House of The Rising Sun", check, one song in Spanish, check, one spiritual with liner notes about the performer's great respect for the American Negro, check), you would probably come out with this record. On the other hand, you can never have too many versions of "She Moved Through The Fair" and Hester chooses to go with the version of the last verse in which the young bride is dead and appearing in ghostly form.
The most iconic photo of Hester from the period is this one with a pre-fame Bob Dylan at her side and ubiquitous 60s folk session bass player Bill Lee (Spike's dad) to the right.

Also worth its dollar is Exuma's fifth record, Reincarnation, from 1972, on Kama Sutra/Buddha. Exuma (birth name McFarlane Anthony McKay, of Bahamian origin) was one of not too many black performers in the mid-60s Greenwich Village folk scene and sounded enough like Richie Havens that it would be hard to skip the comparison altogether. Working from a high sandpapery tenor and rapidly strummed acoustic guitar, his arrangements on this record include lots of percussion, and keyboards as needed. Starting with a bit of Belafonte-ish hokum called "Brown Girl" (which reminds you of the Buddha label's bubblegum origins), he takes an unexpected turn into a fairly faithful version of Paul McCartney's "Monkberry Moon Delight" distinguished from the original (which had only come out a year earlier) by escalating the comically aggressive surrealism of McCartney's vocal performance to a more genuinely crazed level. What could be fairly standard early 70s folk rock gets a lift from Exuma's broad range of vocal styles and the somewhat dark, mystical edge to a lot of his lyrics, with frequent references to Obeah, the Bahamian flavor of the syncretistic Afro-Caribbean religion called Santeria or Voodoo elsewhere.
Exuma's whole story is readily available at wikipedia and elsewhere - the record collector in me is, of course, intrigued by the stories of lost early 80s albums in micro-editions on barely extant labels that were anthologized in 1986 by ROIR records on Rude Boy, his final release.


I think this blog will be principally about what I listen to and read, with some mention of my own modest additions to the world's mountain of words and music.

Today's words of choice belong to Margaret Drabble. "The Millstone" is her third novel (of 17 so far), published in 1965. I have read close to a dozen of her books, and the biographical blurb at the front of each always mentions that The Millstone won the Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize (a fine Welsh name, I don't need to tell you). (The description of this prize and who has won it seems as good as any other).
In any event, the frequent invocation of the prize caused me to assume (in an unexamined kind of way) that this book must be somehow slightly better than some of her others, so I started it thinking I might be dazzled. This is in general not a good way to start anything, since it tends to increase the chances of disappointment. In this instance, we know, or suspect we know, that prizes are given for all kinds of reasons other than intrinsic merit, or cannot be regiven to subsequent and possibly better works as they must be spread around to newcomers.
Also, there's something slightly jejune about the notion of "a prize" attaching itself to anything, carrying as it does connotations ranging from gold stars in kindergarten to blue ribbons for the finest pigs, plastic toys in cereal boxes and so on. In thinking about it, I free-associated my way over to Johann Gottfried Herder's 1772 essay "On The Origin of Language" ("Über den Ursprung der Sprache") which is invariably referred to in histories of linguistics and the philosophy of language as "Herder's prize-winning essay" - apparently a nod from the Berlin Academy was career-making in late 18th century Germany, as Kant was also to discover.

All of which has distracted me a bit from just reading the book - I'll get back to it and let you know how it turns out. After having recently finished her Radiant Way trilogy, which is quite grand in scope, I find returning to her 60s books, enjoyable as they are, tends to shrink the world back to the emotional lives of well-educated young mothers coping with tiny cars and grim National Health waiting rooms.

As for listening, I continue to plow through a small mountain of 90s club music 12" vinyl that came my way, discarding about 10 for each one I hold on to. Today's keepers include "The Copper Groove" by Freestyle Man (aka Morris Brown aka Sasse, real name Klas Lindblad) which is quite melodic and highly repetitive, with a sort of hushed spoken male vocal whooshing in and out, never grabbing the center of attention - pretty characteristic of late 90s German electronic dance music. The sticker on the sleeve tells me it's "House, Deep" and who am I to argue?
Also of note are six quite stylistically disparate mixes of UK soul singer Jaki Graham's version of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody". One mix that stands out is by Dave Way (who I hadn't heard of but has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Macy Gray to the Spice Girls - all the big names!). His approach is comparatively sparse, with that kind of loping West Coast hiphop groove, punctuated by an angular five-note melody that is on the verge of being in the wrong key. It's a refreshing contrast to the Development Corporation remixes which are busy and entertainingly anachronistic in some ways - surely even in 1994, those synthetic horn blats that seem borrowed from a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis Janet Jackson production sounded dated.

Finally in the CD walkman (someone looked at me holding it today and asked "what happened to your ipod") was a CD combining two (1970-71) releases by Australia's The Master's Apprentices (or The Masters Apprentices - no two sources of info, including their album covers, are in agreement about the apostrophe), called "Choice Cuts" and "A Toast to Panama Red." Most people would put these two on any short list of essential Australian rock albums of the progressive rock era and they earn their spot. Despite a few period-specific tendencies for which your tolerance may be limited (a Tull-ish flute moment here, a 7/4 time signature there, massed high vocals that almost hint at Queen), there's a lot of straightforward blistering guitar-playing that tends to carry the day more often than not.

By the way, the site linked to in the preceding paragraph appears to be the spot on the Web for Australian music info, now that Ian McFarlane's Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop is no longer online. I was slightly annoyed after having purchased the latter to find the whole thing was available online. Now that I've put the book in storage, I am double-crossed that it is no longer there!