Friday, October 31, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 4)?

I think I speak for many record store employees when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys that are miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. But I can promise you, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here's a snapshot of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

Various - The Indestructible Beat of Soweto
This blew a lot of people’s minds when it came out, but mine wasn’t one of them. Rather than having my music-world shattered by the realization that there were vibrant, thriving pop music scenes elsewhere in the world, this was part of my growing up/learning process. Not literally this album, mind you, but those P. Simon/P. Gabriel/T. Heads records that sent people out looking for this album or others like it were ingrained into my teenaged pop music DNA the way that the Shangri-Las and Jan & Dean are part of the Ramones’ DNA. So I just accepted this as part of the pop norm when I found my indirect way into it via the Art of Noise working alongside Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. I’m telling you this not to tout some false sense of a superior position, but to note that it means that I came to this strictly as music, not a cultural phenomenon – Apartheid was over and Mandela freed by the time I actually picked this record up - and I still find it to be an absolutely superb example of how a compilation can work to summarize/anthologize a scene, a musical movement, a socio-political phenomenon, and also how easy it is for music in a language that the listener doesn’t understand to vault over any resistances and hit you right in the gut. It’s universal. And knowing the circumstances under which the music was made only pushes my admiration and enjoyment up to the nth degree. And if you’ve never heard anything like this, it may well blow your fucking mind.

Los LobosColossal Head
I’m at a loss to understand why this in considered a lesser Los Lobos album while Kiko is revered as a high point in their career. Kiko trades heavily on atmosphere (provided by engineer Tchad Blake and producer Mitchell Froom, whose slightly bent take on Americana suits these modern traditionalists (traditional modernists?) to a T) while this one refines the formula and offers up better songs to boot. There’s nothing on Kiko with half the energy of the ebullient “Mas Y Mas,” no lyric there with the weary depth of “Revolution” or that spills over with the joy of “Life Is Good.” And don’t get me wrong, I think Kiko is great, I just think this one’s better and more potent, like a concentrated reduction of everything that went into Kiko – experimentalism, ambience, energy, great playing. Why, it's just about as good as the Latin Playboys first album.

ParliamentMothership Connection
The album opens and closes with brilliance, but that middle stretch is totally pro forma P-Funk. Luckily, those three tracks are also the shortest (and also luckily, pro forma P-Funk has still got the goods for dancing), and I give G. Clinton et al props for keeping the theme of the album going, for making them of a piece with the better material that surrounds them, even if they’re lesser by comparison. And those four great once are pretty titanic slices of funk – starting with the stoned radio DJ rap of “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” and moving directly into the album’s central theme/title track “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” in which Clinton and co. suggest vaulting over Earth’s problems into the cosmos. Closing out the B-side (or the CD) they offer up one of the their most durable and popular grooves, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and the ridiculous “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples,” a trifle they probably slapped together in the studio that has proven to be inexhaustibly entertaining (to me at least) over the decades. They’re more consistent elsewhere in their catalog, but they’ve rarely ever peaked as high as the best of what they offer here.

Jesse Hughes live in-store appearance!!!

Hold on to your panties! The devil himself, Jesse Hughes from the Eagles of Death Metal, will be here live in the flesh at Twist & Shout! I don't know about you guys but I am super stoked to see this. I have seen EODM four times & NEVER been disappointed. Its always a party. Be prepared for sexy mustache sounds from this lady-loving hunk. The great thing about this particular performance here at Twist & Shout is that the show will be more intimate, a smaller gathering then I am used to seeing them. Bring your booty-shakin, hip-rattlin self down to Twist & Shout Thursday November 6th at 6pm. After the show, you can get your favorite memorabilia or body part signed from the man himself. Doesn't that sound like fun? I know where I will be next Thursday, getting my heart on at my favorite place, TWIST & SHOUT!!!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What's in the Bin? - October 26th, 2008

One of the sheer joys of being in an indie record store is browsing the bins. Just starting somewhere, flipping through things, pulling out items that catch your eye, giving a few of them a test spin. So in the third of a hypothetical series, I've browsed the "New Arrivals" bins here at Twist & Shout, picked out a few things, and gave them a listen. The nature of used record stores being what it is, I can't promise these items will still be in the bin by the time you get here. But hey, browse the bin anyway. You might find something else of worth.

CD - Sloan - Never Hear the End of It
They're only kinda kidding with the title here. In the opening weeks of 2007, Sloan put out this album - with thirty tracks. And there aren't any "skits" or ten-second "interludes" mixed in - there's well and truly thirty (then-brand-new) pop songs on there. And no, not all of them are deathless. But the pluses far outweigh the minuses. The not-really-punk-but-kinda "HFXNSHC", the quiet "Live the Life You're Dreaming of," the catchy "Ana Lucia," and "Who Taught You to Live Like That" dare you not to sing (and clap!) along. If the last few pop albums wore out their interest after two or three listens, this may be the perfect cure.

CD - Jr. Walker and the All-Stars - Best of / 20th Century Masters
If you know your sixties "oldies," you probably know "that one song" by Jr. Walker - "Shotgun." It was rather an atypical song to come out of the Motown camp at the time. This was the period when the Supremes were scrubbing up, wearing identical wigs and sequined gowns, and perfecting their soft, flowing hand gestures. Meanwhile, "Shotgun" literally explodes out of the gate with a shotgun sound, and is followed up with Jr. Walker's sax wailing and raw, sweaty "Shotguuuuun!" cries. It's soul about as raw as Motown would possibly put its label on. This CD (naturally) starts there, and then moves forward, covering songs of a similar feel (such as "Road Runner"), some surprisingly interesting cover versions ("Come See About Me" and "These Eyes" both hold up well), and Jr's second surprise hit - a mellow but still soulful take on "What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)." This CD may be a short ride - just eleven tracks - but it's a great one, and one that's worth taking on a semi-regular basis.

LP - Young Tuxedo Brass Band - Jazz Begins - Sounds of New Orleans Streets: Funeral and Parade Music
The title may be a mouthful, but it sums it up. This LP was recorded in 1959 (and appears to have been released roughly the same time - there's no date listed on the LP), and was recorded right on the streets of New Orleans. It follows the tradition of a brass band playing funeral dirges on the way to the funeral, and then peppy numbers as they go back home. The liner notes don't make it clear if this was recorded at an actual funeral, but regardless, the effect remains. The first half of side one features slow, mournful dixieland versions of hymns such as "Lead Me Saviour" and "Nearer My God to Thee." Rather haunting, very nice. And then things kick up as side one comes to an end, and the rest of the LP is given over to a much more upbeat mood. Oddly, some of the numbers are hymns as well ("Just a Closer Walk to Thee"), but given a raucous, celebratory vibe. I'm not sure if it's a celebration of life following the mourning of a death, or just a way to shake the heeby-jeebies, but either way, it works very well. The gatefold sleeve has an in-depth discussion of the traditions of New Orleans funeral music, as well as comments on each of the songs, and it's great to have context for what you're hearing. It'd be a great album to put on during a cold day, lying face down on your bed, reading and absorbing the liners as the music sets the mood. In fact, it's the kind of album that might get you looking forward to the next cold day.

- Mondo Gecko

I’ve Never Been This Old Before

Growing old is so weird. Don't get me wrong, I dig it. You're not likely to hear me ever complaining about it. But it's just so weird the random changes that can take place over the course of 30 or so years. Like, I used to hate onions. But one day, as an adult, I loved them. I used wear black on the outside cuz black was how I felt on the inside. Now I'm lucky if I can find more than five pieces of black clothing in my so-called wardrobe. When I was young, I thought nobody understood me. Now I think there's not a thought in my head that someone around me won't identify with. I remember sitting by the radio waiting for Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb” to come on so I could tape it and then try to identify as many of the lyrics as I could, filling a whole notebook of lyrics to my favorite songs. Now I find that the instrumentation of a song is much more important to me than the lyrics, to the point of liking a lot more wordless "post rock" than most. And Lord knows I used to listen to my Jesus & Mary Chain Psychocandy cassette tape to the point of dementia. Now I can't bear more than one song from it....What the?? Does that mean I'm gonna start loving New Age? Um, no, cuz I find that I actually get bored with a lot of music unless it starts rocking my socks off (Kinski anyone?). Well who knows, it's hard to pinpoint what's going on. There's no identifiable trend. No rules to abide by. One thing's for sure: it's impossible to stay the same. So it's kinda weird that I still get giddy about The Cure after 23+ years. I've been a huge fan since 1985 when I discovered Faith and Pornography to be the most perfectly fitting soundtracks to a certain drugless mood I often found myself in. And even though I eventually pulled through the devastations of that mood and "grew out of it," the importance of the music that went with me on that journey has never faded. And even though I've not always adored what The Cure has done since Disintegration, I'll never NOT be a Cure fan. I now understand that with age comes unexpected changes. I'm not at all the same person as back then. And neither is Robert Smith. I should never expect him to write music that would impact the person I used to be. So I made sure to listen to the new album with the ears that are attached to the current me.

It seemed odd to tour North America without first finishing the new album, but it was actually a brilliant move for The Cure and it created a shitload of anticipation for the new album (remember back when we actually allowed ourselves to anticipate?). They trudged tirelessly around this nation giving us 3-hour sets filled mostly with those fantastic classic Cure songs, showing us that yes they've changed while aging as well: they're older and bolder, and still those crazy-good musicians who can outplay any of today's younger rock stars and can still whip their old fans into a frenzy, causing many to take charge of virtual chatrooms and swear at "Anonymous" for having the nerve to criticize Robert's thinning hair. And after finally hearing the album, I'd say they're just as deserving of such defensiveness as they've ever been. "Underneath the Stars" is a spectacular opener and I still can't listen to it without imagining that I'm under the skies at Red Rocks watching them play it. It's got the most atmosphere of any song on the album, with Robert's floating vocals surrounded by the mood of the instruments. From there, the songs are more singles-oriented, although one thing hasn't changed: mainstream radio still sucks, so who knows if we'll hear any of them on the FM airwaves. The four songs that were previously released as CD/7" singles are catchy and playful. "Freakshow" in particular is such a fun song, seemingly written by Robert Smith's quirky dance moves. And it feels like "The Only One," "Perfect Boy" and "Sleep When I'm Dead" are old familiar favorites, since they were sprinkled into the set lists on the pre-album tour. Many of the other songs are getting better and better with every listen and I can't tell you how happy I am to have Porl "Wah Wah" Thompson back home. But the last two songs have already claimed their top spots on my favorite-songs-on-the-album list. "Scream" is a fantastic, slow-building song with a mid-song fade and re-entry that adds even more drama to an already impacting song. And "It's Over"... holy crap. This is exactly how my current self wants The Cure to sound: guitars and drums up in the mix equal to the vocals, with everyone just slamming it. Jason creaming the drums and Simon pounding the bass and the guitars going crazy and your heartbeat wants to keep up with the music until your insides explode and you're out of breath. Makes you just long for the live version, eh? And who knows - maybe in a month I'll wonder why that was ever my favorite song, cuz clearly "This Here and Now With You" takes the cake. And maybe tomorrow I'll hate onions again. But nowadays it's easier to just let it all go and allow whatever changes necessary to get me through this life. As long as The Cure are still in it.

It's Over - Live in Rome

*While supplies last, get a free poster with purchase of 4:13 Dream

Friday, October 24, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 3)?

I think I speak for many record store employees when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys that are miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. But I can promise you, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here's a snapshot of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

John Lee Hooker Travelin’
I know that John Lee Hooker stomping, singing and playing guitar by himself is the archetypal version of JLH, but I have to admit that I love it when he deigns to have a bass and drums (and sometimes another guitar) with him, as was often the case on the early 60’s Vee-Jay albums he did. Even though they don’t exactly add anything to the music – they follow his lead at all times and are, as such, more ornamental than fundamental in the music – I still love the way a cymbal ringing along with him sounds, the way a snare sounding off on the two and four sounds. Also delightful for me is the way each of these songs fades out with John Lee usually still singing, as though each track is but a snatch out of a continuum of rhythms over which he plays the ultimate raconteur, telling his stories now with his voice, now with his guitar; the fade kicks in and we skip ahead to the next chapter in his stories of love and loss on the road. He’s made more dynamic songs, sure, but as a full album, very few from his catalog are of a piece the way this great one is.

Das EFXDead Serious
Though you may get a little tiggidy-tired of their shtick by track 10, you gotta admit that it’s a hell of a gimmick and tough to do, too – more an intricate and (for me at least) largely entertaining circus act than an empty set of smoke and mirrors or some sleight-of-hand parlor trick. And maybe it never again hits the highs that “Mic Checka” (track 1) and “They Want EFX” (track 3) do, but it never loses momentum, never loses the all-important sense of humor they’d be lost without. It starts strong, goes all out for humor, hooks and gross out (humorously delivered, of course) for the first half, then takes it easier for side two – or maybe I just get a little tiggidy-tired by track 10 myself. But persevere – track 10 itself is great, so try not to wear down before it’s over. It was only good enough to (sorta) take as the title of their follow-up. Besides, the rest of that second half is pretty damn good in its own right, it’s just in the wake of the first half that it doesn’t quite dazzle.

Wayne ShorterThe Soothsayer
Like Et Cetera, this album sat in the can for over a decade and in listening it’s tough to understand exactly why – must’ve fit somebody’s marketing plan of the day. Even so – 1980 is a little long to have waited for these spring ’65 sessions. But blah blah blah, spilt milk and all that – I guess by the high standards Shorter had set with his incredible string of 1960’s Blue Note albums, this is a lesser session that could wait for release, rather than being shot out hot on the heels of the masterpiece Speak No Evil. The song “Angola” is spectacular – a fast one in which Shorter, James Spaulding, and Tony Williams simply blow the roof off (I mean, Wayne does in typically oblique Shorter-esque fashion, of course). “Lady Day” is a lovely ballad which Bob Blumenthal’s notes for this edition call “a haunting ballad in the vein of ‘Infant Eyes’” to which I’d add “only not quite as haunting, because it’s less melancholy, if no less beautiful.” The waltzes that begin and end the regular album are pretty great too; one a Shorter original that drives home one of Blumenthal’s other points about the record (I’ll get to that); the other a lovely arrangement of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste.” Bluementhal’s notes point out that (Freddie) Hubbard, Spaulding and (McCoy) Tyner, all first-class players, may not be intimidated by the challenges of the music, but none of them are able to play out the implications (of the compositions) as fully as Shorter himself.” And that’s what I alluded to earlier – while everyone here is able to approach Shorter’s unusual writing and solo on his tunes with gusto, he’s the only one who sounds fully at home with the compositions – well, in the soloing at least. Maybe it’s just that his approach to soloing is as idiosyncratic as his writing, but that’s the way it sounds. Everyone in this terrific group sounds great here – Wayne Shorter just sounds better.

Sonic YouthEvol
This is Sonic Youth right on the cusp of their breakthrough – Steve Shelley’s in place, nearly every track gives up something like a hook (or at least a really memorable bit) – and if it managed to rise up just a little bit more, if the best bits peaked just a touch higher, it’d be major and not just “good.” As it is, the singles – “Star Power” and “Expressway to Yr Skull” – kill, their best moments on record to this point of their career. Not too far behind are “Tom Violence” and the odd little “In the Kingdom #19.” The rest sounds good, but the feel just one push short of really making it. A shame that not all turntables respond to the lock groove that closes things – having that comforting electric drone flesh out the final 11 minutes or so of the Evol side of a Sonic Youth C-90 was a very nice thing. CD version also includes bonus material – “Bubblegum” is a great cover I’ve never heard the original of. Glad they chose it for this. I just take my mental rating down a half notch because they could’ve replicated that lock groove on CD if they really wanted to. I’m not sentimental about “original vinyl” stuff, but that’s one gimmick I really liked.

Rachael Yamagata - Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart

Rachael Yamagata's new album is separated into 2 parts. Elephants shows Rachael's softer, emotional side: slower songs, more gentle vocals, prevalent piano and lyrics bringing forth melancholic feelings and saddening experiences. Teeth... seems to show just that: an aggressive reaction with electric guitars, upbeat rhythms and an expression of anger at times. This is exactly what I wanted from a new album. One third rock and roll and two thirds ballad-esque melodies. Rachael has a wonderful voice and it shines brightest when the sad peeks through. Sometimes she sounds sultry and sexy singing at a near whisper, but you can tell she's had some loss in her life - the liner notes mention a dedication in loving memory to a relative. Depression or just an acceptance of grief has inspired many artisits and musicians to create amazing art. To create something is a positive way to cope, and I am very thankful Rachael Yamagata lets us hear her voice and song. She moved me...again. Guests/friends include Ray Lamontagne, Mike Bloom (The Elected), Maria Taylor (Azure Ray), Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley,Conor Oberst) and James Valentine (Maroon 5).

- Joel Boyles

Monday, October 20, 2008

What's in the Bin? - October 19th, 2008

One of the sheer joys of being in an indie record store is browsing the bins. Just starting somewhere, flipping through things, pulling out items that catch your eye, giving a few of them a test spin. So in the second of a hypothetical series, I've decided to browse the "New Arrivals" bins here at Twist & Shout, pick out a few things, and give them a listen. The nature of used record stores being what it is, I can't promise these items will still be in the bin by the time you get here. But hey, browse the bin anyway. You might find something else of worth.

CD - They Might Be Giants - Apollo 18
Not one of this geek-rock band's well-remembered CDs, probably because it didn't spawn a hit like "Don't Let's Start" or "Birdhouse in Your Soul." And you can probably blame the lyrics - this may be the last time that the Giants were so...out there. But this isn't a CD to be avoided - not by any means. Because whether the band sings about dead people intruding on everyday life in "Turn Around," the biology lesson "Mammal," or the food-related stream of consciousness that is "Dinner Bell," they're delivered with such catchy hooks and great instrumentation that you actually find yourself singing along by the second (weird-ass) chorus. Mixed in with these twisted pop songs are a few quickie bits of calculated oddness ("Spider," "Hall of Heads") which will get you ready for the suite "Fingertips." There, the band quickly runs through twenty-one fragments that were never fleshed out into full songs. So one after another, you get ten-second intriguing tidbits like "Come on and wreck my car" and "What's that blue thing doing here?" The band has said they envisioned "Fingertips" as "the sort of thing you hear during a late-night commercial for Connie Francis's Greatest Hits." Be that as it may, it does make listening to the CD on "shuffle" a truly interesting experience, as all the various "bits" of "Fingertips" are assigned a separate track.

CD - Various Artists - Pure Reggae
Many of us are interested in expanding our musical palettes, but the difficulty usually is "Where to start?" Many people have a modest interest in reggae, but once you pick up a copy of Bob Marley's Legend (or the soundtrack to The Harder They Come), where to next? It's impossible to sum up a genre on one CD (or even a hundred), but this disc does a good job at giving a quick overview. It opens and closes with a couple classic Bob Marley songs - "Stir It Up" and "Exodus" - which should help set the mood for the entire set. Many well-known reggae and reggaesque songs are here - Eric Clapton's take on "I Shot the Sheriff," Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue," Inner Circle's "Bad Boys." There are several undoubted reggae classics - Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," Desmond Dekker's "Israelites," Lord Creator's "Kingston Town," and "Rivers of Babylon" by the Melodians. Rounding out the collection are more modern (and, to my ears, lesser) numbers by Aswad, Apache Indian and Big Mountain. The disc doesn't flow all that well - you may as well listen to the thing on shuffle - but it does do a good job at providing a "big picture" overview of the genre. Presumably, after listening to this a few times, you not only will know whether you want to continue exploring reggae, but perhaps in which direction. And for that alone, it's worth picking up.

45 - Art of Noise - "Legs/Hoops and Mallets"
"Peter Gunn" was still a few months away when the Art of Noise released this as their first single after leaving ZTT Records. If ever there was a "standard" Art of Noise single, this may be it. A walloping drum sound, a catchy bassline and hook, and minimal vocals (just various readings of the word "legs") combine into four minutes of dancefloor fun. The B-side "Hoops and Mallets" is basically a simple tick-tock beat, with a repeating bassline and an occasional keyboard "wah" on top. Various sounds and a sampled "Couldn't sleep at all" (from Bobby Lewis's "Tossing and Turning"?) add a bit of color. And that's it. But listening to two sides back-to-back, the song makes a bit more sense. As a band that didn't write songs so much as assemble sounds into what passed for songs, the Art of Noise's creative process was somewhat different than most. They'd start with something simple - a rhythm, a beat, a sound. They'd add things, tweak things, take things out. And eventually they'd end up with a "song." Keeping that in mind, "Hoops and Mallets" changes - it's now the "Legs" beat pushed in a different direction, slowed down a tad, different things added. "Legs" from a parallel universe, perhaps. Maybe it was a hit there.

- Mondo Gecko

Friday, October 17, 2008

LL Cool J - Exit 13

One of the first things that struck me about the new LL Cool J album, Exit 13, was the fact that he didn’t appear on the album cover… A seemingly minor fact, but over the span of the last 24 years and 13 albums, LL has appeared on almost every album - posing, looking tuff, giving the ladies the eye. I was actually surprised that Cool James’ pretty face wasn’t featured prominently, not even on the back cover. No, instead he’s relegated to the inside of the insert, appearing alongside a mélange of badly Photoshopped images from his last 12 albums: a random panther, a classic D battery-sucking boombox, and some more mysterious objects that are harder to attach to a classic LL album (a weight bench? Street signs?). Generally the album cover seems to be a mess of metaphors and symbolism about LL Cool J, a ham-fisted attempt to sell the album through the fact that LL the rapper has been around forever (the album’s subtitle “8760 Miles & Counting” refers to the number of days, not counting leap years, in 24 years) rather than any real reason to care about the James Todd Smith of today.
Upon learning the background of the album, one begins to realize that Exit 13’s cover is more than just a hastily thrown together adventure, but may actually be symbolic of the schizophrenic nature in which the album was recorded. Originally produced by 50 Cent, the album was delayed for two years by bickering and the eventual ouster of 50 - the final product only retains two songs from the original sessions, with the rest being re-recorded or re-tooled by a hodge-podge of different producers. Apparently this process turned bitter, as LL has publicly announced that Exit will be his last album for Def Jam, the label he’s been with since age 16 and that once offered him the position of president. You can put all the tough-guy imagery you want on the outside, but the mess surrounding the recording bodes ill for the album’s contents…
Unfortunately, the outside has corrupted the inside like mold growing on an overripe fruit. Coherence has always a problem in hip-hop, with very few artists have the cojones to pare down an album or the vision to produce something with even a semblance of a unified theme. Exit 13 suffers from both problems - 19 tracks clocking in at over an hour produced by upwards of ten different people, resulting in an album as scatterbrained as the cover. Remarkably, there are only a few genuinely horrible stinkers, and at least a couple songs that could be considered good if they weren’t surrounded by piles of festering junk. After dumping 50 Cent, LL chose to put his production money into the hands of a group of relative unknowns, a few mediocre also-rans, and former super-producers (Marley Marl!) Amongst the relative unknowns are a few Top-40/R&B producers (like Ryan Leslie), a species that LL has had success with before (as on the hugely successful Mr. Smith,) but who as a group aren’t exactly known for their groundbreaking work. Mr. Leslie’s tracks sound like LL Cool J rapping over the “Rap” demo setting on a cheap 80’s keyboard - a popular sound today indeed, but it has become as tired as LL sounds rapping over it. Throughout the song “Fall in Love” the man who once boasted about his battle rap skills lazily rhymes an endless series of lines with the word “thighs” over a weak Casio beat that sounds equally juvenile and dated. The problems don’t stop there, unfortunately; many tracks sound dated, “Cry” features LL not rhyming, but simply ending each of his phrases with “girl,” “Mr. President” would have been more topical two years ago than a few months before Bush leaves office, and “Feel My Heart Beat” seems to have sampled 50 Cent more than it “features” him…
Despite all of this, there are a few tracks that stand out: the DJ Scratch-helmed “Rocking with the G.O.A.T.” is actually a lively, well-produced track, and LL seems genuinely excited to be involved - rhyming fast and hard, spitting disses and double entendre like the man who once crushed pink cookies. “American Girl” features a choir and marching band and has LL writing lines about women that actually sound like they’re coming from a grown man and not straight from a lonely 13 year old. Unfortunately these stand out tracks are few and far between, and they highlight the fact that given a good track and the right theme, LL could have made a great album, but instead stuck us with a scattershot effort rooted too deeply in the insanity of the music business and not in the depths of the psyche of Mr. Smith.


What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 2)?

I think I can speak for many record store employees when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys that are miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. But I can promise you, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here's a snapshot of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

Talking HeadsMore Songs About Buildings And Food
This is where their interest in R&B (and by extension, all black music) really starts to infect what they’re doing (and I mean that in the best possible way, of course). From the Al Green cover that they first cracked the U.S. top 40 with to the Shirley Ellis single they copped “double beating, double beating, double beating” from to the disco whistles buried deep in the mix in “I’m Not in Love,” this is a real move away from the quirks that so defined the debut. Of course, there are several songs of the same vintage as the ones that made up Talking Heads '77, but mixed in alongside the improved musicianship, their slicker feel for rhythmic motion, and most importantly the added depth of production that Eno helped them achieve, it really makes this record shine in a special way that the lankier, sparer debut doesn’t. Even if the tunes of the '77 may overall be at a (slightly) higher level (an 8.7 as opposed to an 8.6, say), the best stuff here is easily the equal of anything there, and the devotion to actually developing the music to another level, to working it over in the studio gives this the nod for me if you were to force me to choose. If only every band was this committed to developing their sound with each record.

Rahsaan Roland KirkCompliments of the Mysterious Phantom
It’s tough after listening to and reviewing a dozen or so great live performances by one artist to pinpoint exactly what makes this one of that one as good as others. It’s more like it’s one point along a continuum of great music and if it’s not immediately distinguishable from all the others, it’s at least at or above a certain level of quality at all times. Song selection is there to scan and certainly doesn’t tell you anything about the playing anyway – which in the pre-stroke Roland Kirk is always amazing. Humor is high here (both musical and in the spoken interludes), hard-blown saxes are at a high too. Multi-horn playing is minimal and it’s light on manzello and stritch, though nose flute has a full feature. Excellent, yet again. I expect nothing less. And if you have some doubts that he’s serious, you should require no more proof than the first two tracks to understand – he’s major. For real.

Jungle BrothersDone By the Forces of Nature
For the long term, I’d have to say that the Jungle Brothers have been the most disappointing prospect of all the major Native Tongues groups. Nobody else of the movement showed such boundless promise that blanded out over their (sadly, intermittent) career into such so-so music. Listeners coming in late to their music at Raw Deluxe or the reduced-to-a-duo version of the group that made V.I.P., when they actually gained some mainstream radio play may not understand thius, but their great debut and this masterful follow-up – which, I might add, came out the same year as De La Soul and Queen Latifah’s debuts and a year before A Tribe Called Quest debuted – made it seem like the could’ve been the best group of the bunch. Like all the Native Tongues Posse, they drew influences from everywhere musically (especially James Brown, of course), but what stamped them as unique was how up, how positive, how pro-Black they were, always. All their compatriots touched on these things, but the JB’s never went to in-jokes, as De La was wont to do, never invested more in vibe than in words, as Tribe sometimes did, and they’re simply more consistent than Latifah – than any of the others, actually. At least that’s the case here, where their love for all kinds of pop music, their Afro-centricism, their humanism, their humor – all of it comes into play, molded into their best songs. They refined everything that their debut promised and they’ve never been as good since. Sigh….

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What's in the Bin?

One of the sheer joys of being in an indie record store is browsing the bins. Just starting somewhere, flipping through things, pulling out items that catch your eye, giving a few of them a test spin. So in the first of a hypothetical series, I've decided to browse the "New Arrivals" bins here at Twist & Shout, pick out a few things, and give them a listen. The nature of used record stores being what it is, I can't promise these items will still be in the bin by the time you get here. But hey, browse the bin anyway. You might find something else of worth.

CD - The Wedding Present - Singles 1995/97
The Wedding Present was one of those bands I heard about a lot more than I actually heard. I vaguely recall the song "My Favourite Dress", but then everything else moves into that haze in my brain entitled "all those other 90s bands I never got into". So I thought this might be a good pick to catch me up to speed.

It isn't. Despite having twenty tracks, there are actually only three A-sides present, which are joined by B-sides, acoustic renditions, and live versions. The first A-side "Sucker" sounds nothing like I thought Wedding Present would - rough, indie, rocking. Cool, but the following A-sides "2 3 Go" and "Montreal" have stronger hooks and were better listens for me. Then there's all this other stuff. The live version of "My Favourite Dress" is good, but I don't know if it'd be necessary to hear a grungy guitar version of the theme from Cheers more than once or twice. Although I can't say I'm now well-versed in the artistry of the Wedding Present, the picture is significantly clearer now.

45 - Bent Fabric - "Alley Cat"/Rose Garden - "Next Plane to London"
This 7" single is one of those "oldies series" 45s that most labels put out years after the songs actually became a hit. Two popular hits were placed on opposite sides of a single, and thus doubled the chance that someone would come along and buy the single out of the 45 bin. Most of the time, two songs by the same artist would be put on both sides, but from time to time, two one-hit wonders would end up sharing space on a single. When that happened, often, you'd end up with two artists with nothing in common but the label that put them out. And that pretty much sums up this 45 in a nutshell.

The two songs are from opposite sides of the Beatles invasion. Bent Fabric - believe it or not, that's really the guy's name - plays the now-familiar piano instrumental that was actually really tame even back in 1962. I find the song pleasantly cozy in that guilty-pleasure sort of way. My mother used to take me on errands with the radio station on the "easy listening" station, and I'm sure I was subjected to this tune a few times. Still, it's hard to believe this song picked up the very first Grammy award for "Best Rock & Roll Recording". (No, the Grammies haven't gone downhill - they actually started at the bottom of the hill.) As for the other side, the lyrics have the female lead singer going to Hollywood to become a star, not making it, and now heading back home to the UK to meet back up with her guy - "the more important part/than any record on the chart/I'm on the next plane to London". Strange how much the lyrics prefigure "Midnight Train to Georgia", right down to the similar title. But rather than being a soulful number, it's a sunshine-y pop number, falling somewhere between the Byrds, the Cowsills, and the Mamas & the Papas. It didn't bring back any memories for me - it came out before I was born, so that's no surprise - but it was very pleasant, late 60s listen.

45 - Dave York & the Beachcombers - "Beach Party/I Wanna Go Surfin'"
"Rare surf!" scrawled our Vinyl Viceroy Ben on the sleeve of this bizarre gem, and he ain't kidding. I've never heard of Dave York, either of these rather pedestrianly titled numbers, or the record label that put this out (P-K-M). But it's a really fun listen. The A-side starts with a very unconvincing "beach sound" which actually sounds more like someone finishing up the dishes. But then a manic drummer starts in with the beat, and a bunch of crazed teenagers let loose with a screamed/squealed "Let's go to a beach party!". And suddenly the song is airborne. The song mainly features a laundry list of things at a beach party - "footballs, volleyballs/ice cubes and innertubes/there's a beach party going on". Dave York may not be much of a singer, but the "crazy man crazy" beat and the wild saxophone makes up for anything lost on that front.

The B-side "I Wanna Go Surfin'" ends up being an unintentional hoot. Songwriter D Kinzie apparently never went surfing (I'm not even convinced he ever went to the beach, truth told), and so his lyrics end up being a rote sort of listing of surfing terms and phrases - "I want to grab my board". If that wasn't enough, Dave York delivers these lines in a really stiff, fake-gruff voice that sounds like a just-over-the-hill pop singer trying to convince "the kids" that he's still hip. Still, as a one-two punch, the two songs provide a lot of listening pleasure - just of two different kinds.

- Mondo Gecko

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spiritualized through the years

Spiritualized front man and only consistent member Jason Pierce (aka J Spaceman) has gone through a tremendous amount of ups and downs during his 20+ years as a rock star, a cult icon, a rock revolutionist, and a most tortured soul. Jason, with the help of a few fellow Rugby mates and a crate full of musical influences (from 13th Floor Elevators and Velvet Underground to Alex Chilton to Phil Spector), formed Spacemen 3. The group will live forever in the annals of rock history as the band that reinvented psychedelic rock in the 80’s, pioneering a style that became known as “Space Rock” or “Heroin Rock” and quickly spread like wildfire across the UK, then into Europe and the States.

Spacemen 3 broke up in the early 90’s after a bitter difference of opinions between Pierce and co-founder Sonic Boom. Spiritualized came to be shortly thereafter, picking up where Spacemen 3 had left off. The sound was loud (taking Spector’s “wall of sound” production style and adding his personal fingerprint) and included wailing guitars bent through a signature mixture of pedals and effects, old Farfisa organs (a sound Pierce said he could only find with Farfisa), chimes, horns, harmonica and anything else he could find to fill gaps in his sound.

I first saw Spiritualized on their second trip to Colorado in 1995. It was like nothing I had ever seen before or since. Amazing lights, tighter than tight band, it was not quite rock, not quite blues, and not quite soul, but it was all three together with enough volume to leave your ears ringing for days afterwards. Jason sat in a chair, not even acknowledging the crowd or the other musicians on stage with him. He looked, quite frankly, like death. He was unrealistically skinny, pale, and pretty much motionless for the entire show. I remember walking out thinking, “Man I’m so glad I saw this guy before he died.”

Pierce has had a well-publicized (as well as talked about frequently in his own music) struggle with heroin addiction and alcohol abuse throughout his entire career. There was a Spacemen 3 album half-jokingly titled Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to. This ideal applied equally to Spiritualized. How can you make music for fucked up people without being fucked up yourself? Though his songs dealt mainly with 3 subjects: Drugs, God, and Love, none of them were romanticized in either lyrics or delivery. Instead, he sang about them as objects of longing and misery. It was if he was answering the unasked question “What eats you up?”

Since the first show I saw in 1995, I have made absolutely sure to see every show he played in Colorado. Each one was amazing in its own way. One show saw a large horn section on stage, with additional horn players in the balcony behind the crowd. The lightshow just got better and bigger every time. But Jason himself did not. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times backstage and talk a little: about soul music, about touring, about Richard Ashcroft from the Verve dating his ex-girlfriend and ex-band mate. He was polite and quiet, but clearly drained. Exhaustion may not have been the disease, but it was certainly a symptom. I left each of these shows thinking it was the last time I’d see him. And it almost was.

Jason writes in “Walking With Jesus”, a Spacemen 3 song and still a standard in his repertoire, “These wings are gonna fail me” and in June of 2005 they finally did. He was admitted to a London hospital with extreme bilateral pneumonia, a condition that left him unable to breathe by himself and led to a coma-like state, twice having to be rescued from respiratory failure. Friends and family gathered, unsure of whether they were helping him recover or saying their goodbyes. After a month in intensive care Pierce was down to about 100 pounds (at 5’ 10”) and very weak, but he miraculously pulled through the illness and was able to walk out of the hospital on his own.

According to Pierce, this illness had a devastating effect not only on his body, but on his passion for the one thing he loved to do more than all else, making music. He had already written and recorded the vast majority of a new album, inspired by a 1929 Gibson guitar he had picked up at a junk store in Cincinnati, but could not get himself back into the game enough to finish it. He spent his time with his girlfriend and children, as well as helping to care for a close friend who had suffered a stroke around the same time that Jason fell ill. He left the album on the shelf for the better part of two years.

During this time, Jason had a chance encounter with a film maker named Harmony Korine, who Pierce became very fond of very quickly, particularly with his excitement about his art, his ambition to make new original things and to change the way people view said art. This inspiration is the reason Jason picked his guitar back up, dusted off the equipment, and went back to work. He made the first music he’d made since his sickness, some lovingly crafted and creative work released on the soundtrack for Mister Lonely that Korine described as “ethereal and moody .“

After this relationship resparked Pierce’s interest in making music, he began playing in an acoustic “band” (Basically him with a pianist or organ player, string section, and backup gospel style singers.) They took to playing about England and select US shows, with a performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater being the highlight. This is where the love of music really returned to him. He tells of performing at these shows with tears rolling down his face, overcome by the emotion of his own songs.

Re-energized from these performances, he returned to his shelved 1929 Gibson album and was taken aback by how prophetic the album turned out to be. The songs were about death, sickness, and mortality. So much so that many fans believed the songs were written, or at least re-written after his stay in the ICU. He assures us this is not the case. The album, entitled Songs in A&E was finshed and released in May of 2008. The artwork is almost entirely photos of IV rigs, which look like something between a syringe and a crucifix, and something so simple having so much meaning and importance is the theme of not only the album art, but the album itself.

Songs in A&E has been most often described as a “stripped down” version of classic Spiritualized, but I don’t think that does it justice. What it is to me is a progression from classic Spiritualized, an evolved version. Soul takes over as the primary driving force instead of drone. His voice is clear and flawed instead of distorted and perfect. The songs are still emotional and maybe even more so in this case, with feelings that used to be numbed and trivialized now being felt completely and poured out through these songs.

The tour for this album brought Spiritualized back to Colorado and I was there, full of anticipation about what I was about to see. I had deliberatly stayed away from show reviews or live footage, as I wanted to be totally surprised by what I saw. It had been far too long since they had been here, and so much had happened in his life.

From the second they came on stage, I was blown away by Jason’s appearance. He was lively, energetic, friendly (not only acknowledging the crowd but repeatedly applauding us throughout the night), but most importantly, looked like a man in perfect health. He looked big, strong and happy. He appeared to really be enjoying himself for the first time that I had ever seen. He was watching his bandmates and encouraging them, he was pumping his fist, he was smiling, and he was great.

They had a full rock band up there, guitar, bass, organ, drums, along with two gospel backup singers dressed completely in white and lit to look like angels. They opened with “Amazing Grace,” the traditional hymn, with Jason revving his guitar all along. It was moving and beautiful. Then came what is always my favorite moment at any Spiritualized show, which is the falling apart of a song (in this case “You Lie, You Cheat”) into a chaos of sound, waves of sound inside a wall of sound that intensifies in rhythm, volume and tension as it rages towards an orgasmic peak and then falls instantly into the quiet, sedated intro of “Shine a Light” which is perhaps the most brilliant song in Pierce’s arsenal.

The show was a great mix of old and new, the highlights for me being “Lay Back in the Sun” and “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space” with an encore of “Lord Can You Hear Me?” that sent shivers up my spine. The quiet songs were soulful and lovely, the loud songs were really really loud (I think it was the loudest I have ever seen them.) and the segues between the two were masterful. Jason was really at the top of his game and it was so wonderful and refreshing to see.

The most important thing to me this time was that there was no undertone of misery, no wondering if this was the last time. There was only joy and excitement at what could come next.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately?

I think I can speak for many, if not all, record store employees world wide when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” (or a variant like: “What have you heard lately that’s good?”) Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys of music appreciation that are typically miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. The best we can hope for is a happy accident where our interests overlap a bit with those of others. But I can promise you, whether you’re talking to the record store clerk who’s exploring early rockabilly, the one who you trust for your avant-garde classical picks, the one who knows what’s cutting edge in the indie rock world, the one who actually knows all the top 40 tunes you hear, or me, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here are some quick impressions of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
A strange mixture of disco, 80's synth funk-pop, house music, and an undercurrent of melancholy that colors even the fastest numbers. I’m really pleased to know that somebody from Denver got this all together and released on the very cool DFA label. I’ve never been a big fan on Antony’s voice, but it fits the proceedings here just fine. After a couple announcements that they’d be playing here in Denver, we still haven’t seen a hometown return for Andrew Butler and friends. Maybe 2009, if it’s not too much trouble, Mr. Butler?

Kenny Garrett - Sketches of MD
In contrast to the conceptually organized all-star session that was Garrett’s brilliant Beyond the Wall, this stripped down excursion into vamps and blowing is a less artsy affair, more like a good, funky club set. In fact, when Garrett was in town with this band (minus Pharoah Sanders), that was more or less what I’ve been told he delivered. And since Garrett was a member of one of Miles’s later 80’s groups, it’s fitting that he’d have an understanding of how to make the most of minimal musical materials. I enjoy this every time I play it, but I don’t know if I’ll return to it as much in the long run as I suspect I’ll be returning to Beyond the Wall.

William Parker - Double Sunrise Over Neptune
Big group stuff by the prolific William Parker, who, according to my count has released 18 albums since the last one I picked up in 2000. Whew! So I feel a little over my head without being able to track his development and talk about it somewhat, but I can say for sure that he’s comfortable bringing just about any style of older jazz into his conception and making it work for him. There’s a strong Middle-Eastern vibe here, made doubly prominent by the vocals of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay and the shenai and musette horns that sound like they could’ve been recorded straight out of Morocco. A strong groove dominates, even when in an odd time signature – he’d make Mingus proud, even though he leaves the actual bass duties to someone else here. At times it feels like a cousin of Sun Ra’s intergalactic ensembles, though it’s always more grounded, sometimes Mingus is called to mind as the horns run rampant over a solid bottom, elsewhere he’s nodding in the direction of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the ethos of the AACM, bringing in Great Black Music from all realms and eras into his mix. Other times it’s just Parker, who has now spent more than 20 years developing, defining, and sharpening his take on what large group jazz can be today. Time for me to fill in some gaps and flesh out the picture a little bit.

Fela Ransome KutiAlagbon Close/Why Black Man Dey Suffer
Another in the essential – OK, not essential but really fucking cool – Wrasse series of Fela Kuti reissues. This one pairs a 1970 session “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” with a 1974 session, though they fit together quite nicely despite the gap in their creation dates. If you know Fela, you know what you’re in for – “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” and “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality” both rail against colonialism in Africa and the colonial mindset existing even after independence, while “Alagbon Close” details the brutal conditions of a jail Fela got thrown into. – These (plus one more) take place over many minutes (shortest track clocks in at a petite 11:24), over funky grooves, and with savvy horn charts before Fela himself comes in to sing, chant, and hector in a call and response with his wives and other backing singers. It’s all quite enjoyable, even if it’s not a departure from one of the other 20 or so Fela discs I own – and the title tracks are the two best, for what it’s worth.

Friday, October 10, 2008

If it was good enough for Mark Twain….

The release of Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette represents a turning point of sorts. “Race Music” and “Racist Music” of all sorts have appeared on disc before, but this is a release of music that represents a crossroads of race relations. Polk Miller was a White entertainer and promoter who traveled with a quartet of Black singers and they performed on stage together offering his version of “Old Times Down South.” The social context of this release is so foreign to modern sensibilities that some may mistake it for racism, but it actually presents one of the first attempts to bring these two worlds - Black and White - together for the purposes of education and entertainment. The fact that there was a mixed-race group performing and being recorded at the turn of the 20th century is revolutionary enough, but the further revelation that it is such fulfilling musical and social documentation is even more remarkable. The songs range from topical to humorous to novelty to Gospel and the performances are vibrant and enjoyable throughout. Much of the material was taken from Edison Cylinders yet the quality of the recordings is uniformly excellent.
It is hard, in the modern world, to know exactly how to take this release. There is so much baggage associated with any mention of those more racially charged times, but one is left with the distinct impression that Mr. Miller’s intentions were benign, and perhaps even reforming in nature. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of exploitation, rather a sometimes misguided attempt to offer a depiction of how things used to be. The unpleasant aspects of this past time are left aside and replaced by what appears to be a yearning for harmony and understanding in the new century.
In what is probably its greatest point of advocacy the liner notes contain quotes from Mark Twain extolling the virtues of these performances and their place in American history. My suspicion is that if anybody would recognize and call out racism it would have been Mr. Twain. This release is an indispensable piece of the puzzle that is modern American history. Are we more enlightened? One would certainly hope so, and this release beautifully illustrates some historical steps in that direction.

An Autumn Afternoon by Yasujiro Ozu

Criterion has done a wonderful job representing the man who is one of Japan’s greatest directors – Yasujiro Ozu. To date, between their two Eclipse box sets of Ozu’s work and six individual releases (including the masterpieces Tokyo Story and Late Spring), they’ve done a lot to make his work as available in the West as his better-known contemporary Akira Kurosawa (who they’ve also represented copiously). Their latest offering is Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon.

Donald Richie, a renowned writer about Japanese cinema, once stated: “Yasujiro Ozu, the man whom his kinsmen consider the most Japanese for all film directors, had but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution.” There’s certainly no debating the second part of the statement – there is not a film of his that I’ve seen in which the nuclear family being depicted is not reeling from internal conflicts, usually between generations. The first part is misleading though, because it implies that there needs to be a working knowledge or appreciation of Japanese culture to understand the films, and nothing could be further from the truth. I’d say it’s more difficult to access the stylized acting of the Noh theater that Kurosawa employs in some of his films than to understand a conflict between parents and children over when and who their daughter is going to marry, or over a couple separating over marital infidelity. While there may be cultural touchstones or attitudes in Ozu’s films that an understanding of Japanese culture would deepen a viewer’s understanding of, it’s certainly not a prerequisite to watching, understanding, and enjoying them.

An Autumn Afternoon proved to be his final film and it’s no exception to Ozu’s rules of familial conflict that held sway from his films in the 1920’s on to this 1962 release – it bends them maybe, but they’re still intact. Here he is working in color, which only came into play in his final six films, and it’s spectacular. Where his first film in color, Equinox Flower, used a perfect placement of color throughout the frame, it felt like it sacrificed some of his compositional genius to achieve the effects. Not so here, where both color and composition are as brilliant as anything I’ve seen in any of his other films – and that’s saying a lot in a director known throughout his career for dazzling compositions. And if the conflict here is less pointed than other films – in some ways moving toward a new understanding between the generations – it’s still there, as Ozu regular Chishu Ryu plays a widowed father living with his 24-year old single daughter, while his friends’ daughters are marrying off into lives of their own. But unlike earlier incarnations of the traditional father, Ryu’s Shuhei Hirayama character doesn’t seem too pushy about either getting his daughter married off or enforcing an arranged marriage that will not suit his thoroughly modern offspring. He’d rather maintain a comfortable relationship with her by not forcing her hand. It’s only when his friends begin to pressure him to marry off his daughter before it’s too late that he starts pushing her in that direction – and predictably meeting resistance.

Meanwhile, Hirayama’s married son Koichi (Keiji Sada) helps illustrate another of Ozu’s favorite themes – financial stresses and encroaching Westernization impacting on the family. Koichi has a good job, but not a great one, and he and his wife have to borrow money from his father to purchase goods (a new refrigerator) to keep up with the Joneses (as the phrase goes). But the husband also wants to increase his status at work by taking up golf, thus causing an argument over whether a little spare money – that they’re already borrowing – should go toward a good set of golf clubs. Needless to say, this creates friction within the couple.

Does any of this sound “too Japanese” to you? Parents and children fighting over the child’s right of who to choose for their relationships? Couples arguing over money and status? Not really. Again, some of the subtler details of Japanese culture would deepen and understanding of specific responses, but it’s not necessary to dive in here. And again, compositionally, this one’s an absolute masterpiece, with some of the most beautiful combinations of framing, color, and design that he ever put together. The usual shots of trains, power lines, hanging clothes and hallways that populate his other films are rendered here again, strung around the film like his continual circling around the same themes. It’s a great one, for sure, and in Hirayama’s non-insistence of the older generation’s point of view, it seemed almost to be breaking new ground toward attitudes in which the younger and older generations could actually share a point of view instead of conflicting over it – an attitude that can be seen in nascent form back in Equinox Flower. A shame that Ozu didn’t get to develop it further.

Grateful Dead - Road Trips Vol. 1 #4: From Egypt with Love

The one that got away. Most of the attention in Dead land is going to the somewhat disappointing Egypt release. While it has its moments (particularly on the DVD) this release is the one that deserves the accolades. Shortly after returning to the U.S. the band played a legendary set of shows at the soon to be demolished Winterland in San Francisco. The shows were heavily influenced by the Egyptian trip, with slides being shown and Hamza El Din reprising his role as bridger of worlds. This two CD set brings together the best moments of two of those shows. Highlights include a rare and stellar version of “Got My Mojo Working” that leads into what are some of the highest energy versions of “The Other One” and “Stella Blue” from the second half of the band’s career. The power of these versions can’t be overstated. The second disc contains one of the sweetest “Scarlet Begonias/Fire On The Mountain” medleys ever. Following that is a long, jammed-out and fully realized “Not Fade Away/Goin’ Down The Road” featuring Quicksilver’s John Cipollina. For once, this coupling really hits all the right notes. This is the Dead just at the end of the silver era. After these shows they became a highly competent touring machine for another decade and a half, but much of the “mystery” of the early days was gone. This set comes with a bonus disc of even more great stuff from this classic run including one of only a couple of versions of “If I Had The World To Give” ever played.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Holden Caulfield, Bob Dylan and Dignity

The 8th installment of Dylan’s highly acclaimed Bootleg Series is perhaps the most interesting yet. It focuses on the period extending from his Oh Mercy album in 1989 and goes through his most recent album Modern Times. By compiling alternate takes, live cuts, soundtrack songs and never-before-heard tracks this collection might present the truer picture of the artist during these years than any of the individual albums. Some have dismissed Dylan’s modern work for reasons unknown, but for those who have embraced it, it is in some ways his most rewarding period. Like many of the blues, folk, country and early rock musicians he admires so much, all he has heard has become part of the lexicon of his own music. To my mind, it is no different than a jazz musician quoting a favorite phrase mid-solo, or a politician saying “Abraham Lincoln said…” It is absorbing the reality of your experiences into the reality of who you are. As far as copyrights and giving credit go…that’s for others to figure out.

These modern years of Dylan have been like a master’s class in glass blowing. He takes the sand that is our century - the history, the politics, the culture, the anthropology, and especially the music - and forms it into a fragile crystallized vignette that illuminates the modern condition.

For those who wish Dylan would go back to who he was in ’66 or ’76 or ’86 I have to wonder why. Why would you want your favorite artist to stay still and keep doing the same things over and over? Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye would stare at the pretty young Indian girl in the Diorama in the Museum. He wished he could put people in a glass case and preserve them the way he remembered them when he and they were young. Ultimately this is as much a recipe for madness as facing the world head on can be. By living now and processing the past artistically it becomes more meaningful and maybe less painful. Dylan’s modern work is unstuck in time. It floats freely from the turn of the 20th century to just over the horizon. By staying true to his own vision of life he has preserved his dignity as an artist, instead of reliving past glory or fruitlessly trying to be of the now.

Here’s a rundown of the songs and first impressions.

Disc 1:
"Mississippi" - rootsier, softer.
"Most Of the Time" - no longer an anthem of dread, here it is a somewhat jaunty acoustic number.
"Dignity" - A solo piano reading of one of Dylan’s best modern songs, this version gives the song an almost funereal somberness and changed my understanding of the lyric quite a bit.
"Someday Baby" - Completely different take of the song from Modern Times that caused the plaigairists among the critical field to cry foul. I think if they had released this one there would have been less outcry.
"Red River Shore" - One of the real highlights of disc one. Jumping off from a traditional song that was recorded during the Time Out Of Mind sessions it builds musically much the same way “Blind Willie Mctell” does. The lyrical themes fit so perfectly into his modern style you might think he wrote it. It’s not a mistake. I believe has been very open about his influences and his belief that they are his, and any other artist or seeker’s to use.
"Tell ‘Ol Bill" - Spookier version than the one on the North Country Soundtrack. A fine example of his modern poetic style.
"Born In Time" - So much better than the over-produced version on Under A Red Sky. It sounds like it would have fit fine on the none-too-long Oh Mercy.
"Can’t Wait" - Much slower and emotionally bare than the version than the one released on Time Out Of Mind. Amazing vocal performance.
"Everything Is Broken" - Lyrically quite a bit different and somewhat more playful than the one on Oh Mercy
"Dreamin’ Of You" - Another song you can’t believe was left off Time Out Of Mind. Musically it would have been a good counterpoint to some of the other, slower songs. Lyrically, it’s full of mystery and fear. A major find.
"Huck’s Tune" - From the film Lucky You this song is especially notable for the strong radio-friendly arrangement.
"Marchin’ To The City" - Time Out Of Mind should have been a double album. Although this is similar to other songs on the album, it is totally worthwhile, with a great organ part by Augie Meyers.
"High Water" - A live version that really showcases the dynamics of Dylan’s modern touring band. A big guitar heavy version, that shows why the highlight of most of his modern shows is the most recent material.

Disc 2:
"Mississippi" - a lazier and smoother version, focusing on Dylan’s drawling vocal delivery.
"32-20 Blues" - The Robert Johnson song played pretty straight up by a guy who actually can play the blues when he wants to.
"Series Of Dreams" - a more sparse version than the one on the first Bootleg series. I think I like the first one better.
"God Knows" - version from Oh Mercy that I like much better than the one on Under A Red Sky.
"Dignity" - Completely different feel on this one. A popping bass line and sparking guitars give this an upbeat, almost pop feel. Very different, and very cool.
"Ring Them Bells" - a live version that adds not much to the song.
"Cocaine Blues" - showcases Dylan’s propensity for peppering his live shows with covers of traditional songs.
"Ain’t Talking" - A demo for one of the better songs on Modern Times. This version really shows how Dylan works up a song from original concept to final version.
"The Girl On The Greenbriar Shore" - A live cut from his 1992 tour again showing his ability to inhabit traditional songs.
"Lonesome Day Blues" - another live cut, featuring his best touring band that included Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell on guitars.
"Miss The Mississippi" - A Jimmie Rogers song from an entire album Bob did with David Bromberg and then never released. It was worth the wait. The musical interplay is fabulous.
"The Lonesome River" - A duet with the great Ralph Stanley that will send shivers.
"‘Cross The Green Mountain" - An amazing, cinematic song about the Civil War Dylan wrote for the Gods and Generals soundtrack. It is the perfect song to end this epic collection.