Friday, January 27, 2012

Several Species of Small Furry Thoughts: Chimes Of Freedom & The Doors - L.A. Woman (40th Anniversary) by Paul Epstein

Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 years of Amnesty International

What a daunting task: 76 artists covering Bob Dylan to benefit Amnesty International. I went into it kind of expecting the worst. I’m relieved and surprised to report that this 4CD set is, for the most part, a heartfelt musical experience. When scanning the list of artists, it is easy to skip over the fact that many of them are exactly who you would want to see covering Bob, and instead to focus on the fact that Miley Cyrus and Sugarland are there. Don’t worry about that. Focus on the fact that many artists give the best they’ve got and take the task quite seriously. I actually found the whole thing to be quite enjoyable and further proof that Dylan is the greatest writer of his generation. One is flabbergasted by the breadth of subject matter and the elasticity of this work that allows it to be stretched in so many directions and yet still appear to us as cohesive, meaningful, poignant and anthemic. Let me run down a few of the more interesting highlights to my ears.

Disc 1

  • Punk poetess Patti Smith giddyaps her way through “Drifter’s Escape” with the perfect mix of bravado and fear.
  • Tom Morello offers up a somber take on the rare “Blind Willie Mctell.”
  • Longtime Dylan acolyte Pete Townshend plays a lovely, lilting   “Corrina Corrina.”
  • Goofball Brett Dennen is his goofiest and sweetest on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
  • Mariachi El Bronx re-imagine the haunting “Love Sick” into a woozy bullfight march. 
  • Silversun Pickups shimmer on “Not Dark Yet” giving it their own spin. It’s a glacial, icy delivery.
  • My Morning Jacket make “You’re A Big Girl Now “ sound like it was produced by Daniel Lanois with reverbed steel guitars keening and Jim James doing his best Dylan imitation.
  • Mark Knopfler hits the perfect note on “Restless Farewell” sounding much older and wiser.
Disc 2

  • Queens of The Stone Age give a lo-fi  punky sneer to “Outlaw Blues.”
  • Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli own “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below).” They slow it down and set the perfect cinematic mood of dread.
  • Jackson Browne plays a completely reverent “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” soaked with organ and warmth.
  • Angelique Kidjo reworks “Lay Lady Lay” into an upbeat African fantasy.
  • Joan Baez lives up to her reputation with a spot-on reading of the powerful “Seven Curses.”
Disc 3

  • Rapper K’Naan takes some liberties on “With God On Our Side, adding his own raps. But it works surprisingly well.
  • Neil Finn with Pajama Club have a rootsy, swinging take on “She Belongs To Me.”
  • Zee Avi, a 23-year old singer from Borneo has a unique and captivating take on the beautiful “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.”
  • Underdog supergroup, Fistful of Mercy (Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhanni Harrison), break “Buckets of Rain” down to its essence with interesting results.
  • Bad Religion kick “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” in the ass and give it a punk makeover that still holds on to the melody and majesty of the song.

  • Cage The Elephant take “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to a dark and weird place that I thought really worked.
Disc 4

  • Carolina Chocolate Drops are a natural pairing for “Political World” and they take it to the past perfectly.
  • Taj Mahal has such a ball with “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” you can’t help but smile as he growls and grooves his way through it.
  • Thea Gilmore’s gorgeous interpretation of “I’ll Remember You” brought a whole new light to the song. In a woman’s hands it turns from bitter regret to wistful longing.
  • Lucinda Williams brings just the right note of resignation to “Trying To Get To Heaven.”
  • One can’t help but be moved by Pete Seeger with Rivertown Kids children’s choir doing a touching, singalong version of “Forever Young.”
  • Of course Bob lays any doubt to rest as to whom does it best with a classic version of the title song.
There are obviously some stinkers in the bunch (Ke$ha takes the cake and Miley Cyrus namedropping Verlaine and Rimbaud on her version of  “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is a rich one indeed. You gotta hear it to believe it.), and some that just don’t bring much to the party, but there are lots of sincere attempts to pay tribute and to put their own stamp on great songs. The overall effect is a moving tribute to a great cause and the greatest songwriter.
The Doors - L.A. Woman (40th Anniversary) and Mr. Mojo Risin’ The Story Of L.A. Woman 

More than any Doors album my understanding of L.A.Woman has grown and changed over the decades. The first three albums remain gems of the era, the perfect 60’s synthesis of pop, poetry and druggy gestalt to make them timeless, but uniquely of their time. The next two albums saw the band struggling to define a new sound, which on Morrison Hotel begins to take a rootsier, blues direction. With what was to be their final album, the band fully reinvents itself as a whiskey-soaked, Hollywood R&B and in the process cut one of the defining albums of the era. The 60’s are disappearing in the rear-view, Jim Morrison is putting on weight and losing his interest in being a pop idol (truth be told, he never really was that interested in it). He and Robby Krieger have both written new songs tilting toward the darkness that looms on the horizon. Sleaze, commercialism and a total abandonment of the ideals that created the 60’s are gone and in their place is a heap of white powder on a shiny surface. It has a very bitter aftertaste. All of this and more plays out on the grooves of L.A. Woman, the album that invented the 70’s.
Both of the new releases hold revelations. The two-disc reissue of the album proper contains an alternative version of every song on the album and then a newly discovered song, “She Smells So Nice” which kind of tumbles into a version of “Rock Me.” Don’t get your hopes up on the unreleased song - it is a trifle with almost no serious historical value. The alternate versions however, are very interesting. They are really different, although rarely better, than the familiar versions but they do give a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of this great band. It’s the little things; like Morrison singing, “Do you love her madly” instead of “Don’t you love her madly.” Doesn’t seem like a big deal right? Listen to it! It’s amazing what a difference one syllable can make in the creation of a classic. The versions are all significantly different than the familiar album takes and a great addition to the collection.
Even more valuable was the new video called Mr. Mojo Risin’: The Story Of L.A. Woman. Combining some newly surfaced footage of the band in the studio recording the album, with lots of other footage of the band’s history and interviews with the three surviving Doors as well as producers, engineers, friends, fans, hangers-on and record label people, this film is one of the best behind-the-scenes looks at a classic album I’ve ever seen. The film contextualizes the album within the historical period and the arc of The Doors’ career for an unequaled understanding of a classic album and its impact on the listening public. It is always fascinating to watch an engineer sit at the board and take away everything but the guitar or vocal. It gives such a valuable insight into what actually goes into the process of making an album. It is easy to take a song like “Riders On The Storm” for granted. We’ve heard it so much it has become almost commonplace. Mr. Mojo Risin’ reminded me exactly how new and exciting this song and album sounded when it first came out. Over the years it has become fashionable to bash Jim Morrison and diminish the amazing contribution of The Doors. This film will go some length to putting the lie to that notion.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #31 - Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey)

A lot of people dismiss the Marx Brothers as silly, dated slapstick along the lines of the Three Stooges, and that’s sad because they’re really a lot more sophisticated than that. It’s doubly sad because they’ve also been known to save lives. Most famously, Norman Cousins turned to old Marx Brothers’ films when he was diagnosed with an incurable a fatal spine disease and it helped him beat it. And Mickey Sachs, Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters, tried to kill himself but failed and stumbled into a movie theater where Duck Soup playing and realized that life isn’t so bad after all. That’s what got me into them. After seeing Allen’s film, I decided to set aside my prejudice and give them a try. They became not only instant favorites but my main go-to comedy when I was feeling stressed out and down. All through college and the early years of my career I could pop in a selection from my Marx Brothers collection and know that I would soon be transported to a better mood.
Sachs’s savior, Duck Soup, is as good a place as any to start exploring the Marx Brothers. Filled with still-poignant zingers about corruption and ineptitude in government, it’s especially well suited for these trying political times. In fact, it’s been hailed as a masterpiece because of the way it lampoons power through the ages and culminates with a deft comparison of war posturing to a minstrel show. It’s set in Freedonia, an English-speaking nation that’s beset with financial woes and is under siege from its neighboring nation, Sylvania. Freedonia’s wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, agrees to bail the country out only if the sitting president steps down to be replaced by Rufus T. Firefly, who is played by Groucho. Sylvania’s conniving leader sends in two spies, played by Chico and Harpo, to undermine Firefly. And that’s pretty much all the premise necessary to set up the main plot; the whole point of this and all their other films is to get the three of them into a series of situations where they can riff on each other, perform brilliant sight gags and play surprisingly beautiful music.
Groucho and Chico are all about wordplay; their scenes with one another and with straight-faced supporting actors are machine-gun-fast pun-fests. I’d cut and paste some lines of dialogue here if it would do any justice to the real thing, but it just doesn’t. You have to see and hear it. It’s like music, and it’s often surreal, with logic and meaning continually unraveling and twisting back on itself and then coming back together again in rapid succession. This witty banter is balanced by peerless physical humor, much of it delivered by Harpo, who never talks. He has curly blonde hair and wears a big overcoat that he’s always reaching into and pulling out props that serve as punchlines to Groucho and Chico’s chatter. Duck Soup has perhaps the best sight gag in the entire Marx Brothers’ oeuvre: Harpo dresses up as Groucho and stands opposite him behind an empty mirror frame, matching his every movement so perfectly that you wouldn’t know it’s not a reflection were it not for a his breaking sync in a couple of instances, the most genius and weird being when they actually switch places.
And then there’s the music, which is for me where the ultimate healing power of the Marx Brothers shines through. Groucho usually sings a silly song that’s a melodic version of his monologues. In Duck Soup it’s “Just Wait Till I Get Through With It,” as in, “If you think this country’s bad off now...” Chico plays piano and Harpo the harp, both with an innocent beauty that gets me every time. When Chico plays, the camera focuses in on his fingers, which take on a life of their own, dancing and hopping around the keyboard like dancers. And Harpo’s harp playing is always angelic -- a delightful irony coming from the trio’s most slapstick prankster. And sure, just like everything else in these films, the music is dated. It’s the kind of stuff you’re likely to find on a scratchy old 78. But that’s a big part of what makes it work as a remedy for unhappiness: they transport you to a time and place that, true or not, seems more innocent and simple. And for me, that never fails to put my problems into perspective and allow them to dwindle away.
- Joe Miller

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #48 - Handsome Boy Modeling School – So… How’s Your Girl?

There was this time in hip-hop called the 90’s. It’s before rap music had really been fully embraced by the pop charts the way it is today, but it’s after the music had been around long enough to have splintered into a million little subsets, each with their own firm adherents who often had nothing to do with each other. And somehow, straddling them all, comes this little oddity, a concept album ostensibly organized by two boozy dilettantes, Nathaniel Merriweather (in actuality, producer Dan the Automator) and Chest Rockwell (nee Prince Paul), centered around the musical curriculum of a men’s modeling school. All this in turn is (loosely) based on a sketch from Chris Elliott’s short-lived Get A Life TV series, which is sampled throughout to provide some of the continuity for the album. And continuity may be something it needs, given that the music broadly encompasses samples of country love songs slowed down, string quartets looped over a beat, water splashing for a rhythm, and other eccentric ways of putting across their musical ideas. Add to this already strange mix a bevy of guests from across the spectrum of music (and elsewhere) – one track alone credits Sean Lennon, Money Mark, Josh Haden of the group Spain, Paula Frazier of Tarnation, and Father Guido Sarducci – and you end up with… well, this. A silly, off-the-cuff sounding, loosely organized “concept” designed for maximum hookiness and maximum eccentricity.

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out that these guest spots are not just phoned in (except once, literally, for a joke); the folks working alongside Automator and Prince Paul have taken their roles quite seriously indeed, crafting words that, while sometimes humorous, address the real world, not just the silly, seedy world of male modeling that the Chris Elliott sketches portray. And guess what? – it also turns out that Paul and Automator are taking this seriously too. Years after I thought the fun of listening to this had run its course I find that things are actually quite intensely detailed and if the album's not perfect, it's only because they want something of the ramshackle feeling to remain in it. And that continuity I mentioned? Somehow, even with all the diverse sounds and guests, it just flows. Nothing sounds out of place within the weird, catchy little world they’ve created. My favorites are the co-production with DJ Shadow ("Holy Calamity") and Encore's Rakim tribute (over a slowed down Eric B & Rakim sample) in "Waterworld" plus both of Del's appearances ("Magnetizing" and "The Projects (P Jays)"). But the whole thing is pretty damn brilliant, and no less so just because they aim for it to be enjoyable to listen to in addition to meaning something. In fact, I'd even wager that saying something and making it accessible like this is a much harder trick to pull off than it is to come on hard and serious and announce your intentions right out of the gate. I'm still impressed and still digging it over a decade later.
- Patrick Brown

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Michael Hurley

I don’t like a lot of folky Americana music because it’s too pretty and politically correct and not at all like America and American folk as they really are -- kinda good, kinda bad, and generally weird in a beautifully ugly sort of way. Michael Hurley’s music is an exception. It’s like the stuff you hope to find when you wander the backroads in the boonies not knowing what you’re looking for. It’s got all the ingredients of folky Americana -- vocals and acoustic guitar, mainly, with some electric guitar and bass, snare drum and fiddle thrown in here and there -- but it’s lopsided, a little bit dirty and forlorn, like an old man selling junk out of the carport of his doublewide, a guy who’s drunk and a little bit racist but friendly enough, and who happens to have something hideous and stupid but absolutely priceless that he’ll let you have for a couple bucks. Hurley’s music was like that even when he was in his early 20s, in the mid-60s, when he recorded his first batch of songs for Folkways, and he’s stayed that way throughout his career of nearly 50 years and 19 albums that hardly anyone knows about.
I’d never heard of him before last March when my uncle played Have Moicy! for me. It’s a record Hurley did with the Holy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks and the Clamtones in 1976. During the opening track, a hillbilly send-up of “Midnight in Paris,” my uncle laughed and said, “This record should have never been released,” because it’s sloppy and silly. The cover has a crude drawing of a band of werewolves playing at a honky tonk, and the liner notes make no secret of the fact that the record was made in two days, songwriting included. My uncle loaned it to me and I listened to it a lot because it’s so damned peculiar, and because it’s mellow and perky enough to go well with my morning coffee. Then one of my favorite contemporary musicians tweeted something about Hurley, and I went looking for more info about him. I found out Robert Christgau put Have Moicy! at the top of his annual A-list for the Village Voice in ’76 and called it “thirteen homemade, chalky, fit-for-78 songs that renew the concept of American folk music as a bizarre apotheosis of the post-hippie estate,” and “the greatest folk album of the rock era.” I can’t disagree. All the songs are wonderful and odd. There’s one about robbing banks and poaching chickens and another about a disappearing hamburger. I like the ones sung by Hurley the best because his voice has a way of nestling right into the coziest nooks of the melody and making you feel all warm and sad and happy inside -- even when the song is unapologetically dumb, like “Slurf Song,” which begins, “Oh a little wishbone, I make a wish for a potato. I make wish! For a potato!”
            I found out that a lot of Hurley’s records are available on vinyl as reissues, so I snatched up a bunch. There’s not a mediocre one among them, much less a bad one, and Hurley has quickly become one of the very few artists I can listen to anytime, in any mood, and honestly say, “This is perfect.” Some of his records are solo acoustic, with maybe just a bit of female harmony vocal thrown in here and there. On others he plays with a full band of friends and hired hands. The songs are consistently simple and satisfying no matter how many people are playing on them, and they’re always all quite lovely without ever being precious and idyllic the way a lot of folky stuff seems to be. And weird, too, endlessly weird and interesting, the way America is.

- Joe Miller

Snock 'N Roll: Adventures With Michael Hurley (Complete Documentary Short) from Marc Israel on Vimeo.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: New Year's Resolution

Back when I was stealing all my music, I would begin each new year by scouring the best-of lists in search of new sounds. It was a good way to fight off winter doldrums for a week or so. I found all my new music that way, because the other 50 weeks of the year I wasn’t really paying attention. I guess you could say I was busy with other things, but the truth is that music had lost its value to me. I still needed it, still needed to hear stuff I’d never heard before, but I needed it in the way I need to eat cranberry sauce, the jellified kind that comes in cans. I love it, especially when it’s mixed with stuffing and gravy, but once a year is plenty.
            Things changed when I started buying records again. When I rediscovered that a good new piece of wax would get me high, really high, I became instantly obsessed, and I started staying up with music news pretty much constantly. I subscribed to the RSS feeds of dozens of music sites and resuscitated my Twitter account to follow the tweets of my favorite bands. So this year the best-of lists felt entirely different. They were all full of records that had resounded in the twittosphere earlier in the year, many of which I’d already checked out on stream and, for whatever reason, had decided to pass on. This time around the lists were an opportunity to gauge where my tastes fit in the big picture, and also to give a few things a second listen.
            One album that caught my attention again was Replica by Oneohtrix Point Never. All the blogs I read regularly went bonkers for it when it came out in early November. There was so much hype I actually streamed samples from it twice. But, based on how it sounded at 128 kbps, I didn’t get it. So when I saw that it ranked high on a whole lot of best-of lists, many of them otherwise quite different from one another, I decided to bite the bullet and buy the damned thing. I was pleased when I freed it from its plastic wrapper to discover that it came on white vinyl. My lizard brain loves colored records. But I was more pleased when I played it and discovered all the rich nuances in the music that I’d missed in my digitally constricted earlier listens. I suppose you could call it ambient, but to me it sounds more assertive and varied than most stuff I’ve heard from the genre. I looked Oneohtrix Point Never up online and found that it’s a him not a them: an East Coast dude named Daniel Lopatin. He played synth on Real Estate’s single “Out of Tune.” Replica is a tapestry of synth work and sampling from 1980s television commercials. The record is challenging in the way a brain puzzle is. I keep coming back to it wanting to figure it out, and I’m invariably pleased by it.
            Another record I decided to give a second go is Psychic Ills’ Hazed Dream. It’s a good old, late-night, lay-back-and-groove rock album, medium-to-languid paced with minimal abrasiveness and long guitar solos that seem to uncoil and contort like neon-lit snakes. It fits in nicely with my Wooden Shjips’ records. It didn’t show up on as many lists the Oneohtrix Point Never did. I took a chance on it mainly because I recently discovered that the owner of the label that released it, Sacred Bones, is good friends with a good friend of mine. When the gambit paid off, it brought a realization and a resolution. I realized that just about all of my favorite record purchases in 2011 came from a handful of new labels. For example, Replica was released by Mexican Summer, which had also released Quilt’s debut LP and early offerings by Real Estate and Kurt Vile, artists I love so much I’m committed paying premium prices to collect their complete discographies. So I resolved at some point during my first listen of side two of Hazed Dream to buy every new release put out in 2012 by my favorite independent labels: Mexican Summer, Sacred Bones and Woodsist. (Just for fun, I also decided to commit to a couple of even more independent labels that specialize in cassettes -- Night People and Eggy Records -- partly because I have a deck in my car and at my office at work, but mostly because they appear be kind of like farm leagues for the other three.) In 2012, there’ll be no checking new releases out first on stream or torrent. I’m just going buy every one, no questions asked. And I have hunch that when the best-ofs start coming out next December I’ll be reading them in yet another new light. I’ll be like a college basketball fan in March, eager to see where my favorites wind up in the Big Dance.

Monday, January 9, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #30 - Koyaanisqatsi (1982, dir. Godfrey Reggio)

“…while I might have this or that intention in creating this film, I realize fully that any meaning or value Koyaanisqatsi might have comes exclusively from the beholder. The film's role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the audience can answer.”
And it’s pretty remarkable to see the diversity of opinions that the film has spawned – scan down its page(s) on IMDB and check out the many one and ten star reviews (rarely much in between; the film does tend to polarize its viewers) and the passionate opinions voiced in support or attack toward the film. But even if it’s taking its cue from minimalism and abstract art and presenting an object open to audience interpretation more than presenting a subject per se, Reggio knows well and good that he did indeed have “this or that intention” in creating the film by choosing the images that he chose to show. And what is it, after all, that is so provocative? Well, my notes about it start like this: “Cave paintings – rocket launch – southwest, all slow, open. Sand dunes – buttes with sped up motion and score speeding to match – shadows sped up to cover landscapes – cave interiors – fade instead of hard cut into clouds – new music theme, sped up, majestic – water, very similar movement to clouds – back to clouds, contrast water vs. clouds, cut to aerial traveling shots…” and so on.

The film consists of a succession of images, gorgeously photographed and connected by no dialogue - but certainly not juxtaposed together by accident - edited to the rhythms of Philip Glass’s hypnotically minimalist score. Buttressing one image against another forces a connection or comparison in the mind of the viewer, and Reggio’s editing is masterful, starting with open spaces and then populating them, or working an idea to a climax, then backing down and building again to a crescendo alongside the music, which certainly deserves a special mention as one of the best film scores ever written, tied intimately to the film. It’s nearly impossible to imagine these sounds alongside any other images after seeing the film.
Many reviews have found it to be anti-technology - or in the extreme cases even anti-human! - but my take on it is that it’s merely observing the phenomena of the natural world and how man has made his way in it; how you feel about that is the question Reggio is posing for you to consider. Certainly he’s tipping his hand a bit – for a film with no action, exactly, there are more explosions here than a dozen Hollywood action films and of course those are connected with the aggression of the military vehicles and weapons shown, or the industrial vehicles and factories early in the film, or the exploding banks of TVs later – not hard to draw some set of conclusions from those taken together. After its opening sequences, mostly of nature and natural phenomena, Reggio populates the film not with people, but with our artifacts – pipelines, electrical towers, etc. - in the environs we’ve already seen. When he starts to focus on people, it’s in urban settings; after his sequence of military hardware, we take an abrupt shift to cityscapes with sped up clouds roaming across the skylines and a moving camera that goes down rivers and up streets like the canyons he roamed with his camera before. He then starts to move around the city and get a feel for the people: showing slums with seemingly vacant buildings that turn out to be occupied, showing slowed down crowds walking the sidewalks of New York City amidst traffic and giant looming ads, showing Grand Central Station at rush hour (and at hyperspeed), showing people at work and at play in a variety of settings. And lest it be said that Reggio displays no humor in the film there’s the sequence that shows the manufacture of hot dogs in mechanized lanes leading to their packaging up against crowds filing through a row of escalator lanes to cars in rush hour traffic lanes to video game cars in video lanes to Ms. Pac Man in her channels and on down to bowling lanes. I mean, that’s funny! But there are those who’d read it as despairingly cynical, and that’s one of the things that makes the film so fascinating – that it can be interpreted so many ways by so many people. After taking us around more towns, land, and machinery, Reggio nears the end of the film with a sequence of people, mostly in close shots, sometimes pictured humorously, sometimes sad, usually poignant, before echoing the opening sequence of the film and completing the opening rocket’s takeoff and fading to the same cave paintings that opened the whole experience before rolling the credits.
For those who have no time for modern and abstract art, for those who find Philip Glass’s music nerve-jangling rather than intense, for those who feel like a semi-documentary about man and nature made by an admittedly lefty director, this film may be try your patience. For those who want a cinematic experience like none other, one that many viewers find breathtakingly gorgeous, with stunning cinematography and a remarkable score, check out Koyaanisqatsi. And maybe take a gander at the other two equally fascinating films in the “qatsi” trilogy – Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.
- Patrick Brown

Friday, January 6, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On #47 - David Crosby - If I Could Only Remember My Name

There is the rare phenomenon of a work of art defining a particular time and or mindset. It happens that the odd song succeeds in capturing a moment perfectly, but fully realized, cohesive albums are pretty rare in the first place, and one that gets the exact right musicians in tune with exactly the right bunch of songs, and also manages to get some breathtaking performances down on tape is almost unheard of - especially in the drug-fueled mania that was the Bay Area scene at the start of the 1970’s. How does David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name define that era? When I listen to this album, my mind is filled with images and my heart swells with bittersweet remembrance. Like seeing light reflected through colored glass on a wall, the sensation brings up vague images; tapestries, baking bread, incense, the perfume of first love. Thoughts: philosophical, political, social: what will I be doing in 30 years? Little did I know, I would still be trying to get my mind wrapped around this beautiful, beguiling recording. Listening to it now, 42 years after it was made, it feels just as complex and miraculous. The songs are among the best David Crosby wrote. “Laughing” is his masterpiece. Lyrically it perfectly gets at the gestalt of the end of the 60’s. It is paranoia and confusion giving way to revelation and beauty, fear ceding to hope. It climaxes with the perfect expression of 60’s musical bliss - Crosby strumming, Joni singing in the background and Garcia offering the most expressive pedal steel guitar solo of his brief but distinguished career on that instrument. It is an absolutely gorgeous moment on an album full of gorgeous moments and transcendent performances. For the thing that is most miraculous about this album is the fact that it is a collection of many big name artists who happened to be around, and were willing to subjugate their own egos in order to fulfill Crosby’s artistic vision. It is The Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Grateful Dead, CSNY and Joni Mitchell all coming together and making one sound. Unlike any other collaboration, this one worked perfectly.
Opening with “Music Is Love” one knows it is going to be special when Crosby, Nash and Young improvise a timeless hippie anthem with Neil leading the way. “Cowboy Movie” follows as the one blatantly aggressive moment on the album, with Crosby turning the acrimonious break-up of CSNY into a western saga and Jerry Garcia playing an electric guitar duet with himself. At least half of the album consists of atmospheric tracks that show Crosby (and sometimes Nash) using their voices without words, intoning some of the most heavenly sounds they ever recorded. “Tamalpais High (At About 3),” “Orleans,” “Song With No Words” and “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here” are all unconventional songs that showcase Crosby’s sublime vocals, and his intelligent, experimental writing skills without the aid of traditional lyrical content. Crosby proves that it is the “quality” of a singer’s voice that matters more than the quantity of his lyrical insights. Musically, the album showcases the talents of so many greats. It is a trainspotter’s dream to listen to each track and pick out which monster is playing lead guitar and whether Jack Casady or Phil Lesh are holding down the bottom. Everything has a loose, improvisational feel that encourages the best from everyone involved. It is ultimately the kind of indescribable mood of the album, however that so ties it to the era that produced it. It just feels different than anything else I’ve ever heard. 
If I Could Only Remember My Name is the absolute highlight of David Crosby’s career. He had never made such a personal and artistically successful statement before, and he would never come close to doing anything this great again. More than any of his hits with The Byrds or CSNY the work he produced for this mysterious album is how this mercurial artist should be remembered.
- Paul Epstein

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Best of 2011

The official selection process for my year’s best list began a week before Christmas when my wife Allie took off for a weekend trip with a friend and I had the whole house to myself. I took all my 2011 records off the shelf, leaned them against my stereo cabinet in two neat piles, and proceeded to pair them off in sudden-death match-ups, the volume cranked high. The competition began with a fury as I sipped my coffee on Saturday morning: White Fence’s Is Growing Faith vs. Peaking Lights’ 936. White Fence won easily and advanced past Spectre Folk’s The Blackest Medicine, Vol. II before falling in the third round to Ducktails’ III: Arcade Dynamics, whose victory was so decisive it left no doubt that this stony collection of ultra-echofied tunes by Real Estate’s lead guitarist would wind up in the top ten. By noon I had a bracket going and was tweeting all the action to my 23 loyal followers.
The tournament was more or less rigged. I knew going in what my final four would be, so I went through an entire legal pad trying to figure out a defensible way for these favorite records to make it to the semifinals. By sundown I was blissing out to a mismatch between Herbcraft’s Ashram to the Stars and Phish’s The White Tape when I began to see how absurd the whole venture was. I remembered what a famous guitarist once said as he was accepting a “best of the year” award, that music isn’t completion, and I felt a wave of guilt for imposing such capitalistic cutthroat-ness on egalitarian beauty. Plus so much of the music that came into my life this year is utterly incommensurable. Like that first match up. How can anyone honestly compare the highly distorted 60s pop revival of White Fence to the syncopated spaciness of Peaking Lights? It’s like turnips and pomegranates. It was fun to spend a day shuffling and sorting and celebrating all these wonderful new objects, trying to figure out how they defined this year in my life, but by bedtime I was fully repentant. I tweeted, “The brackets aren't a good idea. Tomorrow I'll swap ‘versus’ for ‘and’.”
The next day was one of creative coupling: Wet Hair’s über weird super synth freak out with Mississippi Records’ reissue of Fanfody, a collection of field recordings from Madagascar; the Record Store Day re-release of Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-rock masterpiece Electric Music for the Mind and Body with The Polyps’ Ants on the Golden Cone and its ambient clouds of feedback that billow and contort and dissipate to reveal the most lovely and quiet folk melodies; the savory international fusion flavor Julian Lynch’s Terra next to the widely acclaimed second LP by his good friends in Real Estate next to the no-nonsense pop rock of the Feelies, to whom Real Estate is often compared; Kurt Vile’s 7” next tohis 12” EP next to his LP.
By the time Allie returned I still had dozens of new releases to listen to, including two big contenders for Numero Uno that I wouldn’t for play for nearly two weeks because it was too painful to do so. A few days before my year’s best selection process began, our dog Maddie died after a long battle with cancer. Maddie had been the most consistent source of joy in our lives, and during the final stages of her illness we’d developed a daily ritual of “pack nights” where we’d dim the lights in our living room, cozy up and listen the best new psychedelic rock. Allie requested a moratorium on any sounds that called those evenings to mind, so we nursed our wounds with a binge of Delta blues and kept Woods’ Sun and Shade and Matt Valentine’s What I Became at bay because they were just too vivid of reminders of what we had just lost. Especially the Woods record. We’d listened to it over and over throughout the summer as tumors spread across Maddie’s body.
Then, on the last Friday of the year, my wife asked if we could hear the Grateful Dead’s Europe 72 Vol. 2, which she hadn’t been able to listen to since the night Maddie died, when we sat together and cried to its stunning version of “Sing Me Back Home.” It doesn’t get much more psychedelic than that, with its rare pairing of “Dark Star” and “The Other One” that sprawls across three sides of virgin 180 gram vinyl. And you don’t think music can ever get any better, but then Jerry Garcia slows it down and conjures all the beautiful sadness of life and death with an old Merle Haggard song, “Sing Me Back Home.” I looked over at Allie and she appeared to be contented, so I decided to push the envelope and put on Sun and Shade. At some point during side one, probably when Jeremy Earl sings, “Oh what falls apart and what won’t come back, lay it loose, let it love like that,” I realized that I had been listening to this album at the precise moment when I came to terms with the fact that Maddie would not only die but would die very soon. Allie had gone out with some friends so it was just me and the dogs. I petted Maddie during the first track, “Pushing Onlys,” and I found a half dozen new tumors and I just started bawling and I kept bawling and petting Maddie all the way through. With it playing again now, and with our pack down to three, I turned to Allie and I told her about this moment and the tears came again. I cried hard, so hard that my whole body tensed up and I had to gasp for breath, but when it was over I told Allie it felt good. And that was when I knew what was the best album of 2011.

My top ten:
10. Jovontaes Things Are Different Here
9. The Polyps Ants on the Golden Cone
8. Ryan Garbes Sweet Hassle
7. MV + EE Country Stash
6. TIE Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics | Real Estate Days
5. TIE Grateful Dead Europe 72 vol 2 | Conrad Schnitzler Live 1972
4. Wet Hair In Vogue Spirit
3. Kurt Vile Smoke Ring for My Halo
2. Matt Valentine What I Became
1. Woods Sun and Shade