27 March 2009

Jackson Browne and the Benefits of Aging

One of the consolations of getting older is that I've been able to shed all of the stupid prejudices of my youth. At a certain age I wouldn't have been caught dead listening to Jackson Browne. For some reason I thought there was nothing in his music that could mean anything to me. Besides, I listened to bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and X--there wasn't much room for plaintive California balladeers in my teen stable of artists. And while I still respect and love those bands, I find myself listening to them less and less. Partly, I suppose, because I know most of the music note for note: London Calling and Under the Big Black Sun are my Classic Rock albums. But it is also the fact that I am no longer a young man with a fire to change the world through political agitation (if indeed I ever was). The best part of punk was really always the music. A close second was the outsider status badge (clothes, attitude) that listening to the music conveyed.

All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that as you become more comfortable with being an individual you require less validation in your listening, and the world of music is truly and fully open to you.

Jackson Browne's first album is a masterpiece: a record fully of its time but transcending it as well. The songs are 37 years old now, and they are still fresh. Full of California gold-burnished piano ballads, it's arguably Browne's best work, but the LPs that followed in the early to mid 1970s were all excellent. The writing and performing are remarkably mature for a 23 year old (though the stellar cast of session musicians surely helped). From the opening "Jamaica Say You Will" through "My Opening Farewell" there isn't a clinker in the set. There is the perenially classic "Doctor My Eyes" and the lament "Song for Adam", but my favorite track is probably the four minutes and thirteen seconds of perfection that is "Rock Me on the Water", a secular gospel number that never fails to lift my mood.

I've found that the average person--for whom music is not really an important part of their life--that person tends to solidify their tastes. The music from their high school years is usually the music that resonates with them; thus the proliferation of Classic Rock and oldies stations. But for me, the universe of music is continually expanding. Much like the actual universe, come to think of it.

19 March 2009

Your own radio station: Pandora.com

By now, anyone who cares to probably listens to some sort of internet radio, either via iTunes or Last.fm or one of the myriad methods available. One of the better ways I've found is via Pandora Internet Radio. While I haven't fully explored the differences between Pandora and Last.fm, I can say that Pandora is simple to use, very customizable and mobile via your Blackberry, iPhone or Windows Mobile device.

Pandora is based around something called the Music Genome Project, which basically is a group of people analyzing every piece of music they can get their hands on, looking for traits (acoustic, vocal, lyrical, tempo--there are 400 in all). Pandora uses these commonalities to find related songs and artists. So you can go to Pandora, search for an artist or song that you like and create a station based around the song or artist. Pandora names the station for you, but it is simple to rename. You'll also find yourself adding variety by including artists related to your original pick. Pandora will add what it believes are artists and songs you like as your station plays, and you can give the thumbs up or down to refine its choices for your station.

You'll find yourself wanting to tweak, but there is are problems with overdoing it--too few options and your station sounds flat, with the same sound; too many and it becomes wildly eclectic. If you choose an artist that is difficult to classify you'll also get big swings in styles and tempii. I chose a song by the band Beirut as the basis for one of my stations (you can create as many as you want), the first song that came up was by Metallica, the second by an authentic Bavarian brass band. Vive la difference, I guess.

28 February 2009

Two reasons Calexico is my favorite band (from surethings)

I have to admit being a little worried when Calexico released Garden Ruin. Yes, I'm supposed to be open minded and allow artists to go their way, but GR just didn't hit me like any of the previous records did. A sigh of relief, then, when Carried to Dust was released last year. I hate the "return to form" tag as much as anyone, but it really is just a grand record.

Since is the first mention on surethings, I'll go ahead and post two iconic Calexico songs. The first song up is, for me, the embodiment of the band and its inimitable sound: Crystal Frontier. No other song so perfectly combines all of the elements: subject matter, sound and style, that make up the Calexico sound.

Secondly, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Honestly, could anyone else pull this off? Je taime, baby!:

The band has many great songs, and there is a bunch of video over at YT. If I were to recommend a record I'd have to recommend at least 3-4: Hot Rail, the ep Even My Sure Things Fall Through, Feast of Wire and The Black Light. I also love their collaboration with Iron & Wine: In the Reins. Google, surf and enjoy.

27 February 2009

Amanda Palmer does Radiohead

I still say that when she gets more control over her voice she'll be twice as compelling. She also has chops enough not to pander to the neo-goth-caberet crowd, but I can live with it--what's life without a little weirdness?

23 February 2009

Plucking the Baroque: Walter Gerwig and Bach

I am a devotee of thrift stores, not least because it is easy to pick up great music for (ahem) a song. My latest find: a Japanese import cd (Nippon Columbia/Musicaphon, 1992) of Walter Gerwig's Bach recordings on the lute. The photo at left is the same recording, but not as cool as mine--my liner notes are entirely in Japanese.

If I didn't cruise the thrift stores I'd never have sought out this fantastic 1964 recording of Bach on the lute. To be honest, I had never heard of Mr. Gerwig before picking this up for a paltry $1.99. The cd transfer is immaculate and could have been recorded last week rather than 45 years ago.

Generally the lute, like the nylon-stringed guitar, does not fare well in ensemble playing--it is too quiet an instrument to be heard clearly amidst a group of players. But as a solo instrument in the hands of a talented player it is every bit as compelling as the cello or the violin. And it has a more versatile and varied sound than its descendant, the guitar.

Bach's music for the lute (and transcriptions of music written for other instruments) sounds best unornamented, particularly given the contemplative and quiet nature of the lute, and here Gerwig shines. The simple rhythms of the music are allowed to flow freely, and what might sound sparse on the piano (or, egad! the harpsichord) is refreshingly straightforward here. The Archiv recording in the YouTube video below may or may not be from these sessions (I don't believe it is) and it certainly doesn't do the Nippon recoding justice, but it's something I can include to give a general idea of the sound, though the analog hiss is entirely absent on the cd.

The cd is a generous 67.35 in length, and all of it is compelling. If you are one of those who prefers your classical as background music for turtleneck and cabernet parties it will work that way, too, though the sheer beauty of the music might get you talking about something other than the usual art party gossip.

If it doesn't, your soul may already be terminally damaged.

# Performer: Walter Gerwig
# Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
# Audio CD (April 15, 2000)
# Number of Discs: 1
# Format: Import
# Label: Musicaphon
# ASIN: B00004SZWZ

12 February 2009

Sunday Smiling: Beirut on Letterman (YouTube video)

It was nice to see Beirut on the Letterman show the other night. A bit curious, though, that they didn't play anything from the forthcoming March of the Zapotec/Real People: Holland "double ep", due 02/17/09. Perhaps the available musicians aren't up to speed with the new tunes (shades of that canceled Euro-tour).

But as much as certain critics like to paste Beirut as "pseudo" world-folk, Beirut can be credited with making a kind of world music that the indie scene can get behind. It says less about the band and a bit more about the bandwagon that the music has to be couched in a certain chaotic gypsy clothing. But in the end the music speaks for itself: refreshing sounds well-played.

It's fun to watch naysayers gripe about Zach Condon. While they were complaining about the in-authenticity of Gulag Orkestar, he'd already moved into French song influences in The Flying Club Cup and now some Oaxacan sounds on the new ep. Hopefully it will be some time before the whingers catch up.

09 February 2009

The Weird Turn Pro: Animal Collective and Merriweather Post Pavilion

It can't really be their ninth record, can it? As Animal Collective plugged along throughout the 00s releasing their unique sonic artifacts, it came to seem as though they'd been around forever. You can be forgiven for not hearing or knowing more about this unclassifiable band. The records are not exactly your typical radio fodder: each seems like something unearthed in a future age, like the detritus that Wall-E socked away. They are all unique and each belongs to its own genre of off-kilter folk/electronic/world music. It's even been proposed that AC constitute a new folk music. There might be a point in there somewhere--electronic music, samples and dubbing are becoming less a separate genre of music than a kind of musical currency or method that is more common than the traditional acoustic/electric dynamic that has controlled popular music since, well, since there has been pop music. But when reviewers start tossing around terms like "freak folk", "experimental" and "psych-pop" you can bet there's no real consensus and that you're in uncharted waters, musically speaking.

Merriweather Post Pavilion has met with nearly universal acclaim and has already been dubbed the album of 2009 in some corners. Personally, I'm not much for Top Ten lists--there's far too much new music released each year for anyone to honestly get their ears around and it's unfair to claim the breadth of knowledge that would be required to make such a list, but I can see this disc making a lot of friends. For one thing it is irrepressibly upbeat--the band sounds like they're romping through an aural funhouse. The lack of guitar (if there's one here it is hard to recognize) has forced the band to go heavy on the synth and samples. In lesser hands this could create more problems than it solves but here the music washes over disjointed beats and the vocals ride in and out of the noise like a bodysurfer riding the tide. And if all that doesn't give you an idea of what the music sounds like, well, it is difficult to describe. I suppose you could call it an upbeat OK Computer, which is also a contradiction in terms. I've heard it described as dance music, which is really pretty funny: I can't imagine what dancing to this would look like--perhaps an epileptic fit?

There is a lot of hyperbole rolling around out there with regards to this record and I won't add to it. It is fun to listen to, even though I've always found electronic music fatiguing. It is peppered with memorable lyrics about love, family and growing into the ill-fitting clothes of adulthood. It is discouraging for a reviewer to fall back on the phrase "it rewards repeated listenings" but in this case it is true. If someone like Coldplay had made this record it would already be in half the cd players in the world and hailed as the new Sergeant Pepper. "Am I really all the things that are outside of me?" goes one Zen-like refrain that owes something to Alan Watts, or Jung. With the record industry suffering through a transformation in which the single track iTunes/Amazon download is the new standard, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a reminder that, when inspired, bands can still make records that hold together as more than the sum of their tracks.

Length 54:42
Label Domino
Producer Ben H. Allen, Animal Collective

Track listing

  1. "In the Flowers" – 5:24
  2. "My Girls" – 5:41
  3. "Also Frightened" – 5:14
  4. "Summertime Clothes" – 4:30
  5. "Daily Routine" – 5:46
  6. "Bluish" – 5:14
  7. "Guys Eyes" – 4:31
  8. "Taste" – 3:53
  9. "Lion in a Coma" – 4:12
  10. "No More Runnin" – 4:23
  11. "Brother Sport" – 5:59

05 February 2009

Hot-Rod iPod Mod: Rapid Repair's 240gig Retrofit

If you're anything like me, poor bastard, your iPod was full after a few weeks. Diligently uploading about 10-15 percent of my pop/rock/country collection and a very puny portion of jazz and classical maxed out my 30-gig iPod video long ago. Anything added now requires removal of something else. Yes, there's probably a lot of junk on there, but removing it is a hassle I just don't want to deal with. This is the problem with technology in a gluttonous consumer culture--you can never keep up. Even my tower computer's hard drive is giving me ominous warnings about lack of disc space.

Financial realities being what they are, it's not likely I'll be able to splurge ($295) on Rapid Repair's solution to the iPod problem; and for me it would be a stopgap, anyway. Just eyeballing my music collection tells me I'd need maybe three of these 240 gb hard drives--and I'm obviously still buying the stuff. I'm also pondering re-ripping the whole mess at a higher bitrate, which uses up even more space but sounds better through my stereo. I suppose the ideal solution would be to have my entire library in lossless format stored on a personal satellite radio channel that is playable from a Nano-sized device. Is that asking too much?

For those who can afford it, this is the bestest, mostest upgrade available for now.

(photo via Wikimedia commons subject to GNU license)

04 February 2009

Synesthetic Harmony: M.K Ciurlionis's Piano Music: Various Pianists (1982)

Mikalojus Ciurlionis is one of the few artists who is well-known both as a composer and painter. Ask a casual classical music listener and they will recognize the name, and an art student may recall a lecture on symbolism or art nouveau. It is certainly easy to hear the influence of color (chromatics?) on this double cd, released as a Japanese import. At first blush the meditative piano pieces may evoke thoughts of Chopin, but as the music progresses it becomes clear that Ciurlionis had his own ideas to express.

Given the fact that he died of pneumonia at the age of 35, Ciurlionis' output is amazing, more that 250 compositions in all, many of them for the piano, though his symphonic poems In the Forest and The Sea are perhaps better known. This is without mentioning his painting career, which is a considerable part of his legacy. Both in his painting and music he appears to be a man both supremely of and ahead of his time. It is clear there were antecedents for the directions Ciurlionis took in both his painting and his music, but it is also abundantly evident he had influence on his contemporaries (especially visual artists).

At any rate, this generous sampling of his keyboard music makes for compelling listening. Recorded in 1975, the two-disc set is comprised of selections spanning the composer's productive life, from 1899 to 1909, as played by Aldona Radvilaite, Raimondas Kontrimas, Augustinas Maceina, Aleksandra Juozapėnaitė and Birute Vainiunaite (I assume all are Lithuanian pianists--I was unable to locate any information). While the music is pleasurable to listen to merely for its color, harmony and melody, it is just as interesting to listen for the changes that crept in with his maturity: some atonality is introduced into the collections of preludes, fughettas and Lithuanian folk melodies.

It is known that Ciurlionis had a melancholic temperament. Some sources write that it was a bout of depression and subsequent hospitalization that ultimately caused his fatal pneumonia. Thankfully, I am not a biographer and don't have to provide sources, but I can recommend this music. While this particular disc is difficult to track down, there are well regarded collections readily available from the Marco Polo and Celestial Harmonies labels.

(track info via musicperformers.lt):


Four Pieces op. 3
1 No 1 Prelude in B flat minor 2'33
2 No 2 Humoresque in G minor 2'24
3 No 3 Mazurka in B minor 1'17
4 No 4 Prelude in F minor 1'11

Two Pieces op. 4
5 No 1 Nocturn in F sharp minor 3'42
6 No 2 Prelude in F sharp minor 1'30

Two Pieces op. 6
7 No 1 Prelude in F sharp minor 2'36
8 No 2 Nocturn in C sharp minor 4'10

Four Preludes op. 7
9 No 1 in F sharp minor 1'29
10 No 2 Pastorale in D flat major 1'08
11 No 3 in B major 2'13
12 No 4 In A minor Lydian 1'18

Two Pieces op. 8
13 No 1 Mazurka in E flat minor 1'49
14 No 2 Prelude in F minor 3'24

Three Preludes op. 11
15 No 1 In A minor 0'35
16 No 2 Dainelė in E flat minor 0'58
17 No 3 in B minor 2'05

From Three Pieces op. 12
18 No 1 Prelude in D minor 1'49
19 No 2 Postlude in C major 2'06

From Three Preludes op. 13
20 No 1 in A minor 0'44
21 No 2 in G major 2'33

Theme and Six Variations
22 Theme 0'50
23 Var. 1 4'11
24 Var. 2 0'43
25 Var. 3 1'19
26 Var. 4 0'22
27 Var. 5 1'52
28 Var. 6 0'40

Four Preludes op. 16
29 No 1 in B minor 0'48
30 No 2 in B minor 0'40
31 No 3 in D minor 3'20
32 No 4 Epizode from the Symphonic Poem The Sea 0'50

Three Pieces op. 17
33 No 1 Prelude 2'09
34 No 2 Autumn 1'14
35 No 3 Prelude on the Theme of a Russian folk-song 0'37

Theme ”BEEs ACAEs” and Three Variations op. 18
36 Theme 1'47
37 Var. 1 1'47
38 Var. 2 0'52
39 Var. 3 0'57


Three Pieces op. 19
1 No 1 Prelude 1'01
2 No 2 Basso Ostinato 1'25
3 No 3 Nightingale 0'47

Three Preludes on One Theme op. 20
4 No 1 1'05 mp3
5 No 2 3'11 mp3
6 No 3 1'23 mp3

Four Preludes op. 21
7 No 1 1'00
8 No 2 1'59 mp3
9 No 3 0'32 mp3
10 No 4 0'42 mp3

Five Preludes op. 22
11 No 1 1'07 mp3
12 No 2 1'38 mp3
13 No 3 0'30 mp3
14 No 4 0'43 mp3
15 No 5 1'20 mp3

Four Preludes op. 26
16 No 1 1'11
17 No 2 0'32
18 No 3 3'26
19 No 4 2'31

Four Preludes op. 27
20 No 1 1'02
21 No 2 1'57
22 No 3 0'28
23 No 4 1'52

Marios op. 28
24 No 1 1'42
25 No 2 3'07
26 No 3 0'51

From Two Fughettas and Two Preludes op. 29
27 No 1 Fughetta 0'41
28 No 3 Prelude in D flat major 1'35
29 No 4 Prelude 1'27

Three Preludes op. 30
30 No 1 0'48
31 No 2 1'50
32 No 3 1'05

Four Preludes op. 31
33 No 1 1'54 mp3
34 No 2 0'55 mp3
35 No 3 1'02 mp3
36 No 4 1'18 mp3

From Three Preludes op. 32
37 No 1 0'53 mp3
38 No 2 2'02 mp3

Six Preludes op. 33
39 No 1 2'30
40 No 2 1'13
41 No 3 1'06
42 No 4 1'13
43 No 5 1'58
44 No 6 0'50

Fugue op. 34

Aldona Radvilaitė (1-4) (CD 1)
Raimondas Kontrimas (5-8) (CD 1)
Augustinas Maceina (9-12, 22-28, 37-39) (CD 1)(1-3) (CD 2)
Birutė Vainiūnaitė (13-21, 29-36) (CD 1)
Aleksandra Juozapėnaitė (4-15, 33-45) (CD 2)
Aldona Dvarionaitė (16-32) (CD 2)

03 February 2009

Rachel's Nautical Genius: The Sea and the Bells (1996)

On their third full length release the independent, unclassifiable (avant chamber, anyone?) collective Rachel's struck a somber, elegiac chord with The Sea and the Bells. If you think of this as a tone poem as written by Steve Reich or Gavin Bryars you wouldn't be far off. Piano, strings, brass and percussion ebb and flow, rise and fall almost tidally, creating a beautiful if somewhat foreboding sonic landscape, or rather seascape. Generalities, I know, but the music doesn't fit the usual prescribed categories, especially those of pop or even avant-garde rock. It may remind you of a soundtrack to a peculiar seafaring Bergman film. More than worth a listen for those of you who are looking for something a bit different than your usual indie rock or power pop stalwarts. Be warned: track eight made my dog get up and leave the room. He came back when it was over.

Rachel's are the type of band that has been around a long time but always seem to bring something new to the table. You really can't go wrong with any of their discs but this one is a definite must-hear.

John Baker - Bells
Kevin Coultas - Drum set, Timpani
Christian Frederickson - Viola, Matchbooks
Edward Grimes - Drum Kit
Rachel Grimes - Piano, Vibes, Linen Sheet
Thomas Hatte - Contrabass
Sarah Hong - Cello
Ann Kim - Violin
Greg King - Boatswain
Jim Maciukenas - Musical Saw
Matthew McBride - Viola
Eve Miller - Violoncello, Breton Plotter & Notepad

(Track info via allmusic):

AMG Pick

02 February 2009

Neko's Reverb World: Canadian Amp (2001)

It's not as though Neko Case is wanting for critical acclaim or the limited notoriety that is afforded non-mainstream artists. Her last studio release, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, brought her attention in spades. She has been a star in the "alt-country" firmament nearly as long as she's been recording, and a major one since the near-perfect Furnace Room Lullaby (2000). Her full-length followup Blacklisted (2002) was received with equal critical acclaim and indie adulation. And between those releases was this little interjection released in 2001, an EP recorded just after her move from Seattle to Chicago and featuring cover versions of four tunes by Canadian songwriters, a Hank Williams number and two Case originals. The record was initially sold at tour stops but was later released in more traditional fashion.

While it also met with a fair amount of plaudits, due to its nature it seems destined to remain a stepchild in comparison to her deservedly famous full-length efforts. Which is a shame, because its 23 minutes are packed to the gills with great songs and playing by a host of guest sidemen including Jon Rauhouse, Andy Hopkins, Andrew Bird and Robert Lloyd. With its echo, reverb and haunting harmonies, this could be a soundtrack for a David Lynch western-noir film.

Things start simply enough with "Andy", a tune by Mike O'Neill, which is a simple guitar and vocal number featuring Rauhouse on tenor guitar. The set picks up in earnest with Neil Young's Dreamin' Man which features more fleshed out instrumentation (accordion, Hawaiian guitar, banjo ukelele, electric guitar and Kelly Hogan's spot on backing vocals) and the unforgettable line "...with a loaded gun and sweet dreams of you." "Knock Loud" is another sparsely instrumented piece, with electric guitars by Andy Hopkins, almost a type of reprise of the first track. Case's original "Make Your Bed" doesn't get name-checked much as a favorite track in the reviews I've read, and I'd like to go on record as spotlighting this tune. It sounds like nothing so much as a traditional murder ballad that might be found on some musicologist's field recordings. Led by a reverbed banjo and fiddle, it's a case study in how to make original music that sounds traditional. Lisa Marr's "In California" follows the public domain banjo-twang of "Poor Ellen Smith". I imagine Case must have heard and/or played with Marr during her time in Vancouver, and her song is an inspired choice--a homesick love ballad and surely the first pop/country song to reference "Koreatown". The Hank Williams number "Alone and Forsaken" is strummed and sung over the sounds of rain and thunder but it's Case's voice that takes center stage with Hank's ghostly lyric. "Favorite" is another Case original, totally in spirit with the rest of the record and a fitting closer.

Canadian Amp is not a perfect record by any means. The heavy reverb is mostly a plus in my book but would probably distract some listeners, and the metallic twang of some of the instruments can be harsh at times. But in spite of its weaknesses, this small gem remains a favorite of mine. Case has such a genius for selecting and interpreting covers that it's hard to believe they're not originals. If you're currently Neko-less, I would recommend either Furnace Room or Blacklisted as introductions, but save a spot on your shelf for this.

  1. "Andy" – 1:40 - Mike O'Neill
  2. "Dreaming Man" – 3:46 - Neil Young
  3. "Knock Loud" – 3:08 - Sook-Yin Lee
  4. "Make Your Bed" – 3:15 - Case/The Sadies
  5. "Poor Ellen Smith" – 2:17 - traditional
  6. "In California" – 3:29 - Lisa Marr
  7. "Alone and Forsaken" – 2:42 - Hank Williams
  8. "Favorite" – 3:17 - Case

29 January 2009

Pretty Lights: Stereophile's Big Fat Website

Most people who listen to recorded music seriously sooner or later become interested in the stereo equipment that is used to reproduce it. Granted, the interest may be fleeting or tepid, but it is almost always there, and the listener will eventually find himself poking around audiophile magazines. If he has any sense he is astonished at the price tags some people will even consider ($10,000 amplifiers, $50,000 speakers, etc.). Occasionally these magazines will publish an article on a "budget" $1500 cd player or $2500 integrated amplifier, but it's clear these are merely grudging concessions. The serious audiophile, it is implied, will install these components in his "second system" or upgrade to the megabucks components post-haste.

A safer bet is to read the magazines in the same way one reads Car & Driver reviews of Ferraris, AMG Mercedes and 7 Series BMWs, that is to say, vicariously. In the same way that is is fun to read about how these high-dollar cars hug the road and hit speeds near 200 mph, it is enjoyable, at least to me, to read about the "infinite soundstage", "enormous headroom" and "air" that is heard with these systems. Most of my money has stayed firmly in my pocket--or, more accurately, gone to the mortgage and car payments. I did buy a used "super-budget" cd player, and honestly it was a huge improvement over the crap-box I'd been using. This is dangerous--it lends credence to the audio-mags claims that (gasp) some of these stereo thingies are better than some others. A potentially costly revelation, but I am not currently in a financial position to buy any more of this stuff, so I confine myself to the actual pages of the mags, both the paper and internet varieties.

Stereophile Magazine has long been a player in the high-end audio scene, having risen some time ago to 800-lb gorilla status. If you are going to spend a small fortune on electronics, it is comforting to know that someone ostensibly smarter than you has stamped their approval on whatever audio gizmo you've got your eye on, and Stereophile is the audio bible. There are other magazines, too, of course and there are fervent advocates of publications such as The Absolute Sound. Part of the fun of reading all of these are the letters sections, the audio-dweeb battlegrounds where old and old-at-heart white guys trade blistering barbs about the merits of certain speaker cables or cd player modifications.

Somewhat more reliable sources are the blogs and actual music reviews over at Stereophile.
The site is colorful, with a full but not too busy interface. There are articles available from the current print issue available for reading. There are three or four blogs that are updated fairly regularly and a number of reader forums available for free use. It is the best kind of publisher's site, not stingy with the content and clearly both an investment and a labor of love.

There is some nice content over at The Absolute Sound's website, but the site itself still appears to be an afterthought and I'd encourage them to get a redesigned site on a dedicated host online ASAP. They seem to have a relationship with enjoythemusic.com, but it's not clear what that relationship is. There is some information at the enjoy site but it is pretty well buried and you need to click through a passel of menus to find it, not to mention being bounced around new browser pages. The layout is bland, with far too much white space and block ads on either side of the main text.

There are huge and compelling arguments for and against Stereophile's reviewing methods, their close relationship with the companies whose equipment is reviewed, and other topics, none of which I am currently interested in. The magazine is well written and has a nice layout. The website is fun to read and mostly easy to navigate. End of story.

28 January 2009

Listening Diary: Discreet Music: Brian Eno (1975)

Amidst the sturm und drang that is my daily life, I have an end-of-the-day ritual that hasn't failed me. A hot cup of tea, a fine book and a copacetic bit of music. There are a lot of true believers out there who think that music must be consciously listened to AT ALL TIMES. But some good music is actually meant to be background noise.

Brian Eno is enough of a modern music legend that it is almost difficult to see around him. One can choose any number of legacies, starting with Roxy Music, the art rock band of which he was a member in the group's earliest days. You might consider his solo rock albums (Another Green World, Before and After Science, Here Come the Warm Jets, etc.) which are legendary in their own way. Or is he the David Bowie collaborator who helped forge the sound of the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, Lodger and Heroes? Then you have the minor matter of his production and co-production credits for others, most notably the bands U2 and Talking Heads, two of the most influential bands of the 1980s and 90s.

But I believe he will be remembered most for his contributions to ambient and generative music. Discreet Music is not Eno's first foray into the ambient sound, but it is a very early one, and one that would help to plant the seed of generative music, which is software-generated from an assemblage of notes and phrases. In 1975 the tools were more limited, and Eno used digital synthesisers and tape delays to create a form of a generative system.

The title track is 30:35 minutes of two short phrases, with echoes and variations of the resulting theme that combine in myriad ways. If you are familiar with Eno's later ventures such as Music for Airports and On Land, you have the idea. It must sound a bit boring to the uninitiated, but for someone who listens to a great deal of music it acts almost as a sonic palate-cleanser. The three tracks that follow (and constituted Side 2 of the original LP) are variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D Major, which is now so ubiquitous as wedding march music. The pieces are played by a small ensemble who are each playing seperate fragments and varying tempi or, more precisely, varying degrees of change of tempi. If it all sounds very bland and watery to you, let me assure you the results are anything but--these are new ways of hearing a piece of music that has become commonplace through overexposure.

It was a novel concept to produce a record like this in 1975--a record the artist suggests "listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility". (At the time I was probably stretching the decibel limits of my father's Kenwood receiver and Advent speakers with Blood on the Tracks.) The oft-repeated legend of its origins are contained in the liner notes:

"In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience."

It is not likely that many recuperating rock musicians of the day would be even listening to 18th century harp music, let alone drawing inspiration from it. In Brian Eno's case, the inspiration resulted in one of the icons of ambient music.

Track listing via Wikipedia:

Side one

  1. "Discreet Music" – 30:35

Side two

Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel

  1. "Fullness of Wind" – 9:57
  2. "French Catalogues" – 5:18
  3. "Brutal Ardour" – 8:17

26 January 2009

Listening Diary: Summerteeth, Wilco

There is a listserv called Postcardfromhell that is nominally devoted to the discussion of the erstwhile alt/punk/country band Uncle Tupelo (UT) as well as those bands formed from its remains. In reality, Postcard is a cornucopia of discussions, paeans, rants, elegies, flame wars, ego tripping and other forms of pathos that encompasses just about everything under the sun. If you are persistent you can find the whole, sad story of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt in the archives and FAQs of Postcard (or you can check out the Wikipedia entry). There are easily as many theories about the saga of these bands as there are former members of Wilco, but it's common to find a sort of Lennon fan/McCartney fan dynamic as relates to co-founders Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Who plays John and who Paul depends on which side of the fence you are on, but both men have their followings. It is kind of sad that their camps seem so antagonistic and divided, because both Son Volt (Farrar) and Wilco (Tweedy) have made some stellar music in the years after their apparently acrimonious split.

Summerteeth is Wilco's third album, made after Tweedy had left the influence of Farrar behind and before he fell under the influence of art/noise/post rock. As such it is arguably Tweedy's most honest expression of his musical sensibility, at least up to that point. Granted, if you read enough and listen to some of the music you might argue that Tweedy was under the influence of Jay Bennett's mellotron and maybe his drugs, too, but I'd counter that Bennett and Tweedy were more sympatico here than they were on the critically acclaimed Being There. Tweedy was always more prone to the pop side of UT's sound, and Summerteeth is the ultimate expression of that inclination. There are beautiful melodies here, and soaring harmonies that sound more like middle period Beatles than the Beach Boys that many critics seem to hear. There are also numerous examples of Tweedy's too-clever-turned-clunky turns of phrase, but these are more than made up for by the melodic invention and Tweedy's morose, soul-baring songs.

There are plenty of reviews of all of the material these bands have put on the table over the years, and you'd be well served to spend some time reading through them. Summerteeth is not by any stretch the best record among the UT/SV/Wilco canon--it's not even the best starting point to enter the fray. But it's still a damn fine record.

(info via last.fm)

Can't Stand It (LP Version)
3:46 4,075
She's A Jar (LP Version)
4:41 4,148
A Shot In The Arm (LP Version)
4:18 4,056
We're Just Friends (LP Version)
2:44 4,024
I'm Always In Love (LP Version)
3:40 4,127
Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again) (LP Version)
3:19 3,973
Pieholden Suite (LP Version)
3:25 4,168
How To Fight Loneliness (LP Version)
3:52 4,380
Via Chicago (LP Version)
5:32 3,952
ELT (LP Version)
3:45 3,924
My Darling (LP Version)
3:37 4,202
When You Wake Up Feeling Old (LP Version)
3:55 4,189
Summer Teeth (LP Version)
3:19 4,256
In A Future Age (LP Version)
2:56 4,225
23 Seconds Of Silence (LP Version)
0:22 1,151
Candyfloss (LP Version)
2:56 3,965
A Shot in the Arm (Remix Version)
3:53 4,753

About this album

© Nonesuch (1999) Released: 9 Mar 1999 17 tracks (60:00)

25 January 2009

Listening Diary: Live at the Village Vanguard, Wynton Marsalis Septet

Jazz-ophiles will probably lament (and perhaps ridicule) this being my first discussion of a jazz record. Yes, there are so many 'better' records, so many more classics and undiscovered gems. Fortunately for me, this is a space for writing about music I'm currently listening to, and that is not always the gold standard/Penguin rosette/Gramaphone award winning stuff.

The objection from real jazz eggspurts will be in part because Marsalis is one of those divisive figures in jazz. He is generally seen as a traditionalist for whom the blues and swing are essential ingredients of jazz. I don't necessarily subscribe to this view, but I do find myself listening more to Monk, Miles Davis and Red Garland more than, say, David S. Ware. Luckily for me, I am not an academic or expert and don't have to apologize for a love of melody. Marsalis does seem to be a strong believer in trad, but I don't see how that stops the avant-garde from functioning. Jazz itself is (and has always been) bigger than all of its practitioners.

As far as the music here, there's a lot to enjoy. Live recordings, whatever their problems, are perhaps the most revealing of a performer's ideas at any point in time. Besides, they're generally great fun to listen to. Marsalis and his Septet (there are a few different line-ups) lead the listener through a fictional week's worth of performances at the (ahem) cozy environs of the
legendary NYC club. Yes, there are weak moments here and there. Yes, Marsalis seems to have an Ellington complex. Yes, there is some indulgence and at least one hour-long piece. But, by and large, this is amazing playing from a group of solid musicians. The club environment is intimate and the feel throughout is relaxed and yet swings with the best. Ignore the poo-pooing of the few 1-2 star reviews on Amazon and pick this up. I don't see how you could possibly regret spending $25 for seven cds that capture such great musicians at a high point.

ps: There is a single-disc highlights version of these concerts, but I don't see how it could do justice to the box. If you see it used and for sale for a few bucks it will possibly give you an idea of the sound of the complete box, but then you'll have wasted your precious dough: after you hear one disc you'll want to hear all of them.

(link to a review and the following info from allaboutjazz.com):

Band 1 — Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Todd Williams, tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Marcus Roberts, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. Band 2 — Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto and sopranino saxophones; Victor Goines, tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. Band 3 — Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Victor Goines, tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Ben Wolfe, bass; Herlin Riley, drums. tracks: Disc 1 — Welcome; Cherokee; The Egyptian Blues; Embraceable You; Black Codes from the Underground; Harriet Tubman; Monk’s Mood; And the Band Played On; The Cat in the Hat is Back; Set Break. Disc 2 — Welcome #2; Uptown Ruler; Down Home with Homey; Reflections; Jig’s Jig; Sometimes It Goes Like That; In A Sentimental Mood; Knozz-moe-king; Set Break. Disc 3 — Welcome #3; Buggy Ride; I’ll Remember April; Stardust; In the Court of King Oliver; Bona & Paul; Four In One; Way Back Blues; Rubber Bottom; Midnight In Paris; Play the Blues and Go; Set Break. Disc 4 — Welcome #4; Pedro’s Getaway; Evidence; Embraceable You; A Long Way; The Arrival; Misterioso; Happy Birthday; The Seductress; Set Break. Disc 5 — Welcome #5; The Majesty of the Blues; Flee as a Bird to the Mountain; Happy Feet Blues; Thelonius; Stardust; Intro to Buddy Bolden; Buddy Bolden; Swing Down Swing Town; Bright Mississippi; Set Break. Disc 6 — Welcome #6; Citi Movement; Winter Wonderland; Brother Veal; Cherokee; Juba and A O’Brown Squaw. Disc 7 — Welcome #7; In the Sweet Embrace of Life; Local Announcements; After All; Final Statement.

24 January 2009

Listening Diary: Live at The Concertgebouw 1978 & 1979, Martha Argerich

I know what you're thinking, "another Argerich-gasm (yawn)". Well, maybe, but what's not to love? This 2000 EMI release documents some fine playing from the Argentine pianist that you would have been lucky to hear had you been slouching around Amsterdam sometime in 1978 or '79. Since I was listening to The Clash quite a bit at the time, I might not have made it to the Concertgebouw anyway.

No doubt that part of the Argerich legend stems from her passionate playing, especially as evidenced in the concert hall, whether it be a solo recital, accompanied by an orchestra or as part of a chamber ensemble. But it was solo recitals (including her DG debut) that served notice there was a major talent on the scene. Also of course, she was a lithe and beautiful Argentine stroking (and pounding) the behemoth grand piano, that most masculine of instruments.

But if her skill and her appearance got her noticed, it is recordings like this one that endure. Argerich is often thought willful and mercuric in her interpretations. Yes, she is--and it's a wonderful thing. This disc is worth its price for the Bach alone, and there is much more (the Chopin, for a start). Argerich is not the type of soloist to play music any way other than she feels at the moment--at least that's my impression; and this can make for dangerous, if exhilarating, listening. The classical racks are full of pianists who play music "their way", but rarely do they have the talent, the ear and the sheer virtuosic skill to make music like this. Dim the lights, cue up the player and let Miss Argerich reach across 30 years and pin you to your seat.

See? Told you.

Live at The Concertgebouw 1978 & 1979

Martha Argerich

Series: EMI Classics

Released: 06/03/2000

Cat. No: CDC 5569752

Format: CD

Number Of Discs: 1

Barcode: 0724355697523

Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826

1 - I. Sinfonia - Grave. Adagio

2 - Andante

3 - II. Allemande

4 - III. Courante

5 - IV. Sarabande

6 - V. Rondeau VI. Capriccio

7 - Nocturne No.13 in C minor Op.48 No.1

8 - Scherzo no.3 in C sharp minor Op 39

Sonata (1926), Sz 80

9 - I. Allegro moderato

10 - II. Sostenuto e pesante

11 - III. Allegro molto

Danzas argentinas, Op.2

12 - I. Danza del viejo boyero (Dance of the Old Cowherd)

13 - II. Danza de la moza donosa (Dance of the Delightful Young Girl)

14 - III. Danza del gaucho matrero (Dance of the Artful Herdsman)

Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat Op. 83

15 - I. Allegro inquieto - Andantino

16 - II. Andante caloroso

17 - III. Precipitato

18 - Keyboard Sonata in D minor, Kk 141/L.422

English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV 807

19 - Bourrée