Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Music Library: All Catch-Up with the Aye-Ayes, Dylan, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Byrds

I took a break from listening to The Fall today to catch up on some more recent acquisitions. The 2009 albums from Oneida and Sonic Youth, which I won't review today, are both fantastic. So, then:

The Aye-Ayes - Bravado (2009). Led by my former editor at Nerve.com, the Aye-Ayes are a Brooklyn-based indie rock band with the classic feel of 80s college radio (a little Mission of Burma, a little Jam, a little Connells) and heart-on-their-sleeves lyrics. Definitely fun stuff, and available for free on their website.

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue (recorded 1975). Dylan's big-band moment! His Rolling Thunder Revue included Mick Ronson from Bowie's glammiest period, T-Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera (who played violin on Desire, although she sounds ten times better here), and a whole lot of other people. And it sounds fantastic. I've never much cared for Hard Rain, the other official release from the Rolling Thunder Revue, and this release leaves it in the dust.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004). I bought this when it came out and almost immediately returned it. This is the famous album where Will Oldham revisits his Palace songs with a full Nashville session band backing him. I didn't much care for it five years ago, but I figured I could give it another try, and I'm surprised to report that it's actually quite good, once I got over the surprise. Oldham's definitely having fun with the format. He seems to be taking a page from the Bob Dylan playbook of reinterpreting his classics for his own amusement. And while none of these versions touch the greatness of his stark Palace versions, they strike me now as a well-meant and sorta fun tweak to his image as a socially-isolated mountain man (when, in fact, he's the kind of fun-loving guy who pops up in Kanye videos, goofing around with Zach Galifianakis).

The Byrds - Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969). This album follows Sweetheart of the Rodeo, after which everyone left the Byrds but Roger McGuinn. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, and I have no idea why drummer Kevin Kelley left. Anyway, McGuinn brought in Clarence White, the hotshit bluegrass guitarist who had played on Sweetheart of the Rodeo (among many other great albums, including Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers), and recruited a new rhythm section, and picked up the pieces. The album art has The Byrds as cowboys on one side and spacemen on the other, and that's an accurate assesment of the bipolar feel to this album, careening from psychedelia to country from song to song without ever really integrating the sounds. It ain't terrible, but it ain't great, neither.

Reading Rainbow Roundup: What The Dead Know and Remainder

Two more books I've read recently:

What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman. This is the first of Lippman's many books that I've read, and it was definitely zippy. I'm not a mystery reader, which is Lippman's primary genre, so I know Lippman mainly because of her association with David Simon, the man behind The Wire and Generation Kill (and Lippman herself has a brief appearance in Season 5 of The Wire). Now, I'll grant that it's a shame that this is my primary association for a writer of Lippman's fame, and some may go to a place of sexism or genre-bashing, but, to be fair, I also think first of The Wire when I think of Dennis LeHane or George Pelecanos, who are both arguably more famous. Anyway, self-defense aside, Lippman is, as I said, a zippy writer, and I plowed through this book quickly without really meaning to. In the story, a woman appears from nowhere in North Baltimore, a little shaken from a car accident, claiming to be one of a couple of teenage girls who vanished some thirty years prior. The Baltimore Homicide Department gets involved, and the book leaps around in time as they attempt to uncover who this woman is while she reflects on her past. My main issue with the book was that I figured out her secret almost right away, while the stone-cold professionals in the Baltimore police never even considered the possibility. The narrative kept me hooked, though, as I wanted to find out a) if I was right and b) why she kept this secret. Glancing at the review in the NYT, Janet Maslin apparently didn't figure out the secret, so maybe it's just that I'm a suspicious reader who assumes that the author's game doesn't involve outright deception, but merely sleight-of-hand. And as sleight-of-hand goes, it's a decent trick.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Where Lippman's book was a fun diversion, this book was Nabokovian effort. Which isn't to say that it was a hard read, because like many of Nabokov's books, it was a quick and effortless dash. In fact, I think I read it quicker than I read What The Dead Know. But Remainder is wresting with some deep philosophical problems through the eyes of an increasingly unreliable narrator, and McCarthy manages a neat trick of writing everyday surrealism that reminds me of one of my favorite movies of the last few years, Synecdoche, New York, all of which means that I absolutely loved this book. The book is a first-person account of a man who has been in a terrible accident, something falling on him from above, although he doesn't remember what. In fact, he's lost a lot of memories, as his brain has been damaged. In one of the clever passages, he describes how he's had to learn to use his right side again by rerouting information through his brain, which is a key to the strangeness to follow. Having received a tremendous amount of money from his settlement, he's unsure what to do with his life until he accidentally sees a crack in the plaster at a friend-of-a-friend's party, which triggers an intense memory that might be a vision. He uses his money to recreate his vision in real life, turning a building into an exact replica of what he knows (and the parts he can't construct with his mind are left blank, including the face of the concierge), with people hired to interact with him in mundane ways (so the woman playing the concierge must wear a hockey mask). Since his accident, he's been unable to feel real, and he longs for what he considers an authentic moment. These tiny interactions make him feel authentic. And the narrative gets considerably weirder from there, as his brain damage and money and singular obsessions lead him further into utter insanity, which may also be a form of shamanic holiness. McCarthy is excellent at reproducing this mental state. I felt insane while reading this book. I still feel a little insane from it. Any book that can wiggle into your mind like that is a book to take seriously.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Music Library: Faces + Fairport Convention

According to iTunes, it would take me a solid week of listening for 24 hours a day to go straight through the Fs. Which would probably only cost me my job, family, and sanity, were I to attempt it. As much as I love writing these posts, I think I'll try to hold onto those things for the time being, so if it's all the same to you, so I won't be doing the Fs in a week. Glancing through them, I notice that the bulk is all centered around a handful of artists, although there are 66 F artists in total. Anyway, I like numbers because I am a nerd. And here we go:

The Faces - A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse (1971) and Good Boys... When They're Asleep: The Best of Faces (1999). Bringing the rock in the best possible way. How the hell did Rod Stewart get from the Faces to "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," anyway?

Fairport Convention:

  • Fairport Convention (June 1968). It's easy to forget that the whole of Fairport's heyday was a mere two years. The growth from Fairport Convention to Full House is nothing short of stunning. All of the Fairport albums that I have feature Richard Thompson and Simon Nichol on guitar. On the first album, the lead singers are Judy Dyble (known for knitting on-stage), who would be out of the band not long after the album came out, and Ian MacDonald (who would soon change his name to Iain Matthews) plus Ashley Hutchings on bass and Martin Lamble on drums. This album opens with a killer cover of an Emitt Rhodes song, "Time Will Show The Wiser," but the rest of the album is only so-so. The greatness of the next few put it into stark relief.

  • What We Did On Our Holidays (Jan 1969). After Dyble left, the band was fortunate that among those auditioning for her replacement was Sandy Denny, soon to become known as one of the most remarkable and influential voices in all of the burgeoning Brit-folk-rock sound. Denny served as lead singer for all three 1969 releases. This album is a leap forward into the sound of British folk music, which Fairport blended with rock styles, a la The Band and The Byrds. This album also features Thompson's "Meet On The Ledge," a song he wrote in his mid teens (and, to be fair, he was not yet 20 when this album came out). "Meet On The Ledge" is one of Fairport's best-known songs, although Thompson seems to find it a little embarrassing. That's his prerogative; he wrote the damn thing. I think it shows his trademark laugh in the face of death.

  • Unhalfbricking (July 1969). Here's where Fairport really takes the hell off. The rest of the band simply cut Iain Matthews out of the recording process, letting Denny take the lead and some of the rest of the boys sing, too. They brought in Dave Swarbrick to play fiddle and mandolin on about half of the tracks. And they played like their very lives depending on it. Three of the songs are Dylan covers, including a funny Cajun-ish take on "If You Gotta Go." Two are Denny's, including her masterful "Who Knows Where The Times Goes?" Two are Thompson's, including his "Genesis Hall," one of my favorites of his songs. And then there's "A Sailor's Life," a traditional British folk song that the band gave the full-on psychedelic-in-1969 feel. I've attached videos (well, they're mostly audios) so you can listen to Thompson and Swarbrick play off each other. I say DAMN.

  • Liege & Lief (Dec 1969). This one's a stone-cold classic, although it was born of tragedy. Between the recording and release of Unhalfbricking, Fairport had an auto accident while returning from a gig late one night. Martin Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were killed. The band was uncertain how or whether to proceed. But they pulled it together, brought in drummer Dave Mattacks to replace Lamble, made Swarbrick a full member of the band, and recorded an eight-song album that ditched the Dylan covers for arrangements of traditional British folk music. There are only three originals on the album: "Come All Ye" by Denny and Hutchings, Thompson's "Farewell, Farewell," and Thompson and Swarbrick's collaboration "Crazy Man Michael," which is, oddly enough, the oldest-sounding song on the album. In the clip below, listen to how Thompson and Swarbrick play off each other differently on this than they do on "A Sailor's Life." They aren't trying to be psychedelic any more; they're now instead throwing extremely complicated bits of traditional dance music from the British Isles at each other, just to see how fast and precise they can be. I think it's nothing short of amazing. And who doesn't love a good death ballad? That's gangsta rap, circa 1500 AD. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the cuckolded lord wrote this himself, just to let everyone know what a bad-ass motherfucker he was.

  • Full House (July 1970). Then Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings quit. The band recruited Dave Pegg to replace Hutchings on bass and recorded Full House with Swarbrick, Thompson, and Nichol singing lead. This one had four traditional songs and three Thompson/Swarbrick collaborations, including the masterful anti-war song "Sloth," attached in the clip below. Another original, "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman," was originally intended to be included, but Thompson had second thoughts about it and requested that it be cut at the last minute. After Full House, Richard Thompson left the band, and I no longer cared about them, although the band has dragged on with new members to the present day. All of the original members were gone by 1971, but founder Simon Nichol returned in 1976. Fairport usually hosts a big live reunion show every summer called Cropredy, but I've never been.

  • House Full: Live At The L.A. Troubadour (recorded 1970). This is a live album of the Full House lineup that combines tracks from two prior albums (called House Full and Live At The L.A. Troubadour, respectively). It's pretty smoking hot, but it definitely focuses on the traditional folk music over some of the better-known Fairport songs. The only Fairport original is "Sloth."

  • Heyday: Best of the BBC Recordings (recorded 1968-1969). This is a single-disc of live Fairport music that Joe Boyd's Hannibal Records put out a few years back. Since then, some kind soul at the BBC has released a four-disc box set of all of the Fairport live material from 1969 through 1974, including this material. Upon checking Amazon this morning, I have learned that they are offering a download of this box for less than $21, so I will be picking it up as soon as possible. This makes me very, very happy.

Next: The Fall, of which I have so much that it would take me 36 straight hours to go through it all. I don't plan on doing this (-ah!), so it will be a few days (-ah!) until I post another of these. Thanks to Bill Ham for turning me onto Mark E. and co. back in 2001!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Music Library: Ernest Tubb, Ernie & Top Notes, Ernie K-Doe, Espers, Esquivel, Essie Jain, Ethan Lipton, Etta James, Everly Bros, Explosions in the Sky

Last of the Es! Finished them in one week solid! That may not happen again until Q.

Ernest Tubb - Country Music Hall of Fame (1941-1965). According to Allmusic, this is one of the most complete Tubb compilations out there, which is good. The man is the sound of the Texas two-step, and you can hear how the Bakersfield sound took so much from him. He can't much sing, but he puts enough of his personality into each song to carry you through. And the songs are charming as heck.

Ernie & The Top Notes Inc. - "Dap Walk." From a compilation of obscure soul singles lovingly assembled by Stones Throw Records, the home of Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib, and J Dilla, among others.

Ernie K-Doe - Absolutely The Best (1961-1963). A collection of singles by Ernie K-Doe, the New Orleans R&B institution who also ran for post-Katrina mayor in 2006, a full five years after his death.

Espers - Espers (2004), The Weed Tree (2005), and II (2006). Man, I love Espers. This is for that demographic of people who really like the Fairport Convention and the Pentangle, but who also really like, well, Blue Öyster Cult and/or Neil Young when he's on a guitar kick. The first album is relatively subdued. The Weed Tree, which features mostly traditional songs and covers of artists like Nico and Michael Hurley, keeps ratcheting up the psych-to-folk ratio, culminating in a stunning 10-minute version of BÖC's "Flaming Telepaths." (Mike Nix, are you reading this?) And II is a mind-melting slab of psych-folk-rock awesomeness.

Esquivel - "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Auld Lang Syne." Two goofy space-age bachelor-pad Xmas tracks from the cheese king.

Essie Jain - We Made This Ourselves (2007). Back to the Fairport Convention comparisons, although this one is less glowing. Essie Jain has a voice that sounds very, very Sandy Denny-ish. Unfortunately, her tracks are a little too quiet or even timid to sustain my interest over a whole album. The individual songs, though, can be quite the breath of fresh air when they pop up in the shuffle. My favorite is the opener, "Glory," a lovely minimalist gospel-influenced track.

Ethan Lipton - A New Low (2004). Mr. Lipton sent me a copy of this CD himself looking for a review in the High Hat back in 2004. I liked the CD and passed it on to a friend to write about it. Plans were made. Discussions were held. First drafts were... well, I don't actually know about this part. Unfortunately, as with so many High Hat stories, disorganization rules the day. Still, we like this. Lipton is a wry and funny songwriter, with the kind of attention to detail and underlying humanism that betrays his literary background. He probably gets compared to Jonathan Richman often, but it's apt: there's a definite goofy Richman vibe in his vocals, although the band is more Raymond Scott Orchestra than Modern Lovers.

Ethel Waters - "My Handy Man." An quite dirty blues song from the early 20s.

Etta James - These Foolish Things (1962-1971), Her Best (1960-1970), and "Love Letters." Two collections and a stand-alone track, but there's some powerful Etta James tracks on here. The first focuses on her big-band ballads, although the powerful no-nonsense James voice shines through. The second is a single-disc culled from the Essential box set, and the music is far more traditionally bluesy, although there's still some syrup and even some Phil Spector-style Wall of Sound tracks. Most surprising: there is no crossover between these two discs, though both are incredibly strong. The last is a only-ok bossanova version of the killer Ketty Lester track "Love Letters" (one of my favorites; you may remember it from Blue Velvet), which reminds me that I failed to mention Elvis the P's version the other day.

The Everly Brothers - It's Everly Time! (1960), A Date With The Everly Brothers (1961), and "When Will I Be Loved?" Man, I love the Everlys, with their country-influenced close harmony and early rockabilly sweetness. I should pick up a compilation of hits sometime. Although these two albums are so wonderful that it's hard to believe that they aren't greatest-hits collections themselves. But no, they're just a couple of the 6 or so albums the Everlys made between 1959 and 1961.

Explosions In The Sky - How Strange, Innocence (2000), The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003), and All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007). The strangeness of language is never more brought into relief as when you hear of a single word that carries an extremely complicated meaning. German has "schadenfreude," a word that English has practically adopted, which (of course) stands for the joy one experiences in the suffering of others. Japanese has "tsujigiri," which means the practice of a samurai testing a new katana upon a chance bystander, which, charming though the concept may seem to us who are unlikely to be chance bystanders, English has fortunately not found much use for. I think the English word "life" is an extraordinarily odd word. On one hand it is easy to know a meaning of it, as only those who are alive will ever use the word. In another sense, it is near-impossible to define without being self-reflexive, as life can only be known by the living and the absence of life can only be marked by the absence of living. But the way it crops up in conversation, though, is often more about the state of being than just being itself. Life is everything you experience, and everything everyone you know experiences, and everything that everyone you don't know experiences, and these are all contradictory and exclusive, and still the fact that we have commonalities between these experiences is breathtakingly amazing, although also ordinary and, in the truest sense of the word, mundane. And where I'm going with this is that I'm trying to say that it's appropriate that Ausin's favorite post-rockers Explosions in the Sky play that theme song to Friday Night Lights, a show that's about the stuff of life, all those experiences that you may never have but where you find yourself drawn into feeling that commonality. With the exception of the falsely dramatic second season, the show demands that you recognize the life in its characters, fictional though they are. And the music made by Explosions in the Sky is full of life in the same self-contradictory way: triumphant yet reflective, simple yet ornate, demanding attention while occasionally deadly dull (As no less a poet than John Berryman says: life, friends, is boring), thriving through highs and lows and many, many in-betweens. The first delicate touches of my fingertips to my newborn children. The times that I am such an ass that I make my beloved wife cry. The pride of having my book proposal accepted, followed instantly by crawl-under-the-bed fear. The sorrow of having reached an unpassable argument with my mother. The stuff of life - which isn't the shit that life keeps around, but the murky filling, that which animates it - and it's not every instrumental band that can wrench a person around through all of these memories without uttering a single word.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Music Library: Ennio Morricone, Epic Soundtracks, Eric Dolphy, Eric Matthews, Eric McFadden, Erik Satie

Ennio Morricone - The Legendary Italian Westerns (1964-1969), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), and A Fistful of Morricone (compilation, dates unknown). The first compiles Morricone's music to a number of Spaghetti Westerns from the 60s, including A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and Once Upon A Time In The West, but excluding The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, so it's good that I have that soundtrack, too. The compilation was made by a friend, and boy howdy, do I dislike some of the music on it. His theme for The Battle of Algiers is fantastic, but when Joan Baez starts singing over one of the later tracks, it's lost me. Most of the other music is from movies in the later 70s and on into the 80s, and it simply doesn't move me. There's a tendency to fall back on Euro-pop that doesn't sit well with me. But the Western soundtracks are aces.

Epic Soundtracks - Rise Above (1993). Originally one of the Swell Maps (along with his brother, known as Nikki Sudden), the man who called himself Epic Soundtracks made albums of mostly quiet piano ballads built around the music of the Beatles and more experimental Beach Boys (and the font on this album deliberately recalls the cover of Pet Sounds). This is a lovely and sad album. Only one track has any snarl to it, but otherwise, it's all orchestral pop built around piano songs, a la The Beach Boys' "Surf's Up." Soundtracks made three albums before dying suddenly of unknown causes in 1997. I used to have a copy of his third one, too, but I seem to have lost it. I should pick up the rest, though, because I remember liking it as much as I like this one. There's a posthumous album, too, which his brother built around demos Soundtracks had made for a fourth album. Haven't heard it, but I should.

Eric Dolphy - Out To Lunch (1964). Dolphy's last and greatest album before he, too, died too young. This is a free-jazz masterpiece. Featuring a very young Tony Williams on drums.

Eric Matthews - It's Heavy In Here (1995), The Lateness of the Hour (1997), "Lonely Sea," third album demos (early 00s), Six Kinds of Passion Looking For An Exit (2005), Foundation Sounds (2006), Limited Edition EP (2006), "Needle In The Hay," and The Imagination Stage (2008). Eric Matthews is a freaking brilliant singer/songwriter/arranger in the style of Brian Wilson, albeit with more of an indie-pop feel. In the early 90s, he was 1/2 of the brief-lived chamber-pop group Cardinal with the exceptionally brilliant (and much missed, at least by me) Richard Davies. His first two solo albums were on Sub Pop, and both are an extraordinary melding of post-punk sensibility with the kind of 60s chamber-pop of Brian Wilson at his most ornate, Scott Walker, the Left Banke, or Lee Hazlewood. "Lonely Sea" is from a 2000 tribute album and is utterly gorgeous, taking an early 60s Beach Boys song and giving it the treatment of the late 60s BBs. The demos were traveling around the Internet in the early 00s, and I eagerly snatched them off of a blog, as at that point Matthews hadn't put out an album for some 6-7 years, and I was concerned. However, he signed to Empyrean Records shortly afterwards, and many of these songs turned up on the next two Matthews albums. Since the versions on actual releases are mastered to sound better, I should probably just delete the "demos," which are pretty much the completed - albeit unmastered - versions of the songs. Six Kinds of Passion and Foundation Sounds (plus the bonus EP) have more of a rock feel than the Sub Pop albums. They weren't bad albums - actually, they're quite good - but they felt like a compromise between Matthew's lush vision and the resources at hand. Matthews's cover of Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay" is rather awesome, I think. The Imagination Stage was a return to the lushness of the Sub Pop albums, and while I wasn't overwhelmed with it at first, it grew on me quite a bit over time. Unfortunately, as I learned when I friended him on Facebook (and was unfriended rather suddenly following his discovery that I was an Obama-supporter), Matthews has a rather mercurial personality, and he has apparently ended his contract with Empyrean Records with some acrimony, despite having another album ready to release. Regardless, he's a seriously talented guy, and he deserves a larger audience.

Eric McFadden - "Voodoo Lady." Don't know anything at all about McFadden's other music. This is a blues thing with fast guitar runs.

Erik Satie - The Best of Erik Satie (2000). A cheapo release on the Naxos label, I'm not even sure who the musicians are on any given track of this CD. But it's fine that the attention is given the composer, as this is attempt to present Satie for the before-his-time populist he was. Most of the tracks are performed on solo piano and could pass for modern ambient or new age music or movie soundtracks (which many of these have served as), although the first three, the Gymnopédies, will also close the album in orchestral form.

Feelies Reissues!

It's about time! Pitchfork has the news.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Music Library: Elvis, Emanuel Ax et al, Embarrassment, Emerson String Quartet, Emitt Rhodes, Emmett Miller, Emmylou Harris, Emotions, English Beat

Elvis Presley - The Complete Sun Sessions (1987), "I Got Stung" (1958), and The 50 Greatest Hits (2000). This is pretty much all the Elvis I need, although those giant box sets of a decade or so back are still tempting, if only because I remember listening to the 60s box, which has a lot of Elvis singing clambake stuff in a bored tone, but then suddenly, for whatever reason, he would decide that this particular song - this B-side to a song that no one really liked - would be one where he'd just rip it out and let everyone know he was The King. When he was inside the song, he embodies it in such a way that you still can hear why everyone agrees on Elvis (excepting Chuck D, of course).

Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma - Brahms: The Piano Quartets Op. 25, 26 & 60 (1991). Considering that I must talk about classical music today, I find that I have very little to say: I like this. It is good. These musicians, they sure know their stuff. And the music sure is pretty. Housekeeping question: should I file these under the composer or the performer? I have no standard.

The Embarrassment - "Podman," Heyday 1979 - 1983, and Blister Pop (2001). Punk hits the Midwest! The Embarrassment brought the post-punk/college rock and should have been bigger than they were. Standout tracks are "Sex Drive," "Elizabeth Montgomery's Face," and "Death Travels West."

Emerson String Quartet - Bartók: The String Quartets (1988) and Schumann: Trio and Quartet (1993). I like that Bartók. What a composer, eh? And that Schumann is no slouch, either. Say, these Emerson String Quartet guys are quite solid! This is embarrassing. My pal Steve Hicken sent me a link to a music theory website yesterday. I really needed to read everything on it before pretending to talk about string quartet music.

Emitt Rhodes - Listen, Listen: The Best of Emitt Rhodes (1995). Rhodes is a guy who really loves Paul McCartney, but is mostly known for being one of the first bedroom artists, a guy who made elaborate multitrack music at his home studio in the late 60s/early 70s. There's a few truly great tracks on here, especially "Time Will Show The Wiser," which Fairport Convention covered.

Emmett Miller - Minstrel Man From Georgia (1996). Man, when I first picked up this CD, I was ashamed to let anyone catch a glimpse of it. The cover had a picture of Miller, a minstrel who performed in blackface. Thankfully, they've changed the cover now to a generic image of an Okeh acetate. Nick Tosches has gone on at length about Miller in two books (Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock & Roll and Where Dead Voices Gather), but the main thing to know is that Miller recorded songs that would later provide some of the backbone of country music ("Lovesick Blues," recorded by Hank Williams, "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Right or Wrong" by Bob Wills, among others, plus his vocal style can be heard in Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Tommy Duncan, Merle Haggard, and many more) while having some giants of jazz in his band (Gene Krupa, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang). Despite the ugly specter of racism hanging over every track (most feature some incredibly offensive blackface skits to lead them off), the music is surprisingly vital, and that tension is part and parcel of the history of popular American music.

Emmylou Harris - At The Ryman (1992) and Red Dirt Girl (2000). Emmylou Harris is a beautiful person, lovely to look at, lovely of voice, and by all accounts possessed of a lovely personality. She is one of the greatest accompanyists in rock and country music, and can lift even the most standard dreck into the realms of greatness with her harmony lines. When she is singing with someone else on material that's already fantastic (such as the works of Gram Parsons), she makes a good thing better. But I confess that I don't have much use for her as a frontperson. At The Ryman is a pretty fun live bluegrass set of Emmylou & company covering a bunch of classics, but Red Dirt Girl - like most of her solo albums - does nothing for me. Plus it's overcompressed like crazy, which makes it hard to listen to.

Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton - Trio II (1998). While I like the first and last of these singers, this album doesn't do much for me. My lovely wife likes it, though, so it has something going for it.

The Emotions - "Best Of My Love." Job security just in case I ever take a job as a wedding DJ.

The English Beat - What Is Beat? (1983). Greatest-hits comp from the ska revivalists. Great stuff!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Music Library: Elvis the C

Elvis Costello: I'm going to keep this one short. If you're looking to me to help you navigate the Elvis the C library, you're probably ignoring the considerable (and considerably more helpful) information elsewhere on the web.

  • My Aim Is True (1977). The mostly excellent debut with Clover, aka Huey Lewis and the News backing him up. This is the 1993 Ryko reissue.
  • Live at the El Mocambo (1978). An early live show with the Attractions, who play everything at light speed. Will peel your ears.
  • This Year's Model (1978). My favorite Elvis C album. This is the 1993 Ryko reissue.
  • Armed Forces (1979). My 2nd-favorite Elvis C album. This is the 1993 Ryko reissue.
  • Get Happy! (1980). Elvis's R&B album. This is the 2002 Rhino reissue.
  • "You'll Never Be A Man" (from Trust, 1981). I used to have a cassette of this, but I've never sprang for a reissue or download. Should remedy this.
  • Almost Blue (1981). Elvis's Nashville album. It's not terrible, and his version of Leon Payne's "Psycho" is one of the best. This is the 1994 Ryko reissue.
  • Imperial Bedroom (1982). Elvis's big studio album. Near perfect, despite its flaws. This is the 1994 Ryko reissue.
  • Goodbye Cruel World (1984). Elvis's worst album (by stint of the crappy production, not the songs, which sound better in a different setting). This is the 2004 Rhino reissue (includes Elvis's cover of Richard & Linda Thompson's "Withered & Died.")
  • The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1985). Only the tracks that aren't on the albums in my collection, namely Trust and 1983's Punch The Clock. If/when I get around to picking those up, I'll delete the rest of these.
  • King of America (1986). A touching Americana album that serves as Costello's analog to Dylan's Blood On The Tracks. This is the 2005 Rhino reissue.
  • "Beyond Belief (Live)" from Girls Girls Girls (1989). I'm actually not sure where this is from. I think the version of "Beyond Belief" on Girls Girls Girls isn't a live version.
  • When I Was Cruel (2002). Reportedly Elvis's return to form with most of the Attractions. The touchstone for reviewers was 1986's Blood & Chocolate, an album sadly missing from my collection. I think: eh, it's okay.
  • My Flame Burns Blue (Live with The Metropole Orkest) (2006). Maybe the best of Elvis's arty albums. I like it, which is more than I can say for most of his art/jazz/classical stuff.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music Library: Elizabeth Cotten, Elizabeth McQueen, Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Johnson, and Elliott Smith

Today's about the ladies! Plus one sad dude.

Elizabeth Cotten - Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1958). Do you know the story of Elizabeth Cotten? She taught herself to play guitar and banjo upside-down and backwards (because she was a lefty) when she was a kid in the 19-oughts. She wrote "Freight Train" and "Oh Baby It Ain't No Lie" when she was maybe 13. She taught them to a few blues musicians traveling through town (that was Chapel Hill, NC). Then she got married and knocked up when she was all of 15. For 40-odd years she didn't touch a guitar, while her songs were passed around and renamed and because known as blues classics. Then, by happenstance, she got a job working as a maid in the Seeger household in the 50s. One day they played her some of Mike Seeger's field recordings of folk and blues songs, which were part of his work for the Folkways label. She mentioned that she played guitar in her youth and wrote a few songs, and then she proceeded to play "Freight Train" for the Seegers, a simple fingerstyle blues with the wild alternating bass that marked all of her songs, but, of course, when she played it, it was upside-down and backwards. Say you're a linguist and your job is to find everyone who speaks Navajo and record them before the language disappears. Then, by chance, you find out that your housekeeper doesn't just speak Navajo, but she wrote the Navajo version of The Odyssey. When she was 12. Some hours later, they must have finally peeled their jaws off the floor and started the tape machine. Anyway, I want to say "if you take fingerstyle guitar and folk music seriously, you should own a copy of this," but that sounds like homework, and Cotten's songs are fun. So trust me on this. Her voice is rather tuneless, plus she's all of 67 in this recording, so take that into account. But it doesn't matter.

Elizabeth McQueen & The Firebrands - Elizabeth McQueen & The Firebrands EP (2001) and The Fresh Up Club (2003). McQueen is a delightful singer who has gone on to join Asleep At the Wheel, which means that she sang a duet or two with Willie Nelson on his last album. From humble beginnings! My wife and I used to go see her play with her honkytonk friends at the Carousel, the lovely little dive bar just up from our house. The first of these is their demo EP and the second, their first and - I think - only release. McQueen was clearly headed for bigger things even then, and success couldn't come to a nicer person.

Ella Fitzgerald - The Early Years, Pt. 1 (1935-1938), The Early Years, Pt. 2: The Original Decca Recordings (1939-1941), Ella & Louis [with Louis Armstrong, natch] (1956), The Best of the Songbooks (1993), "Azure," and Portrait of Ella (1996). Oh, like you really need me to tell you about Ella Fitzgerald. Of these recordings, the first two are a little trying for those of us who don't remember WWII, the Ella & Louis set is far greater than sliced bread and almost as good as single-malt whiskey, The Best of the Songbooks is an excellent collection, "Azure" is one of my favorite songs by anyone, and Portrait of Ella is a less distinguished collection.

Ella Johnson - "I'm Tired Of Crying Over You." Big-band swing! The voice was different, but otherwise this could have been one of Ella Fitzgerald's Decca sides.

Elliott Smith - Elliott Smith (1995), Either/Or (1997), "Miss Misery," XO (1998), Figure 8 (2000), and From A Basement On The Hill (2004). I have five Elliott Smith albums? Seriously? I mean, I like the guy okay, but he's not one of my favorites, and, honestly, I have a hard time naming any song that's not on the first two albums. But okay, I have five albums. I get diminishing returns on his work the more I listen to it. Am I alone in this?

Big Stars in the Radio City

My friend Phil, a guy with an ear for extreme jazz and metal who just doesn't have much appreciation for guitar pop, was asking what makes Big Star so special to fans. I mentioned that I thought they were pretty sophisticated for power pop and quite different from, say, Tom Petty's three-chord, major-key songs. He asked me to clarify, and this is what I wrote:

Take "Feel," a Chris Bell song. That main descending riff that starts out "Feel" isn't anything too crazy, a variation on a traditional blues riff. The first guitar holds a G on the low string and then walks down a half-step at a time from the 5th, the D. They do this twice, with the lead guitar doing those high bends during the second run. Then the song changes keys to D for the verse. It's a Chris Bell song, so this is the big three-chord, major-key stuff: D G A. Back to the riff for the chorus. The second verse is a guitar solo (which is itself a variation away from how rock songs traditionally work), but at the end of the verse, they interrupt the progression of the song to throw in those Memphis horns doing R&B riffs for 8 repetitions (at least, I think it's 8 - I'm going by memory), back to the chorus although with minimal rhythm accompaniment here, then - do they repeat the first verse before going back to the chorus? I forget.

See, there's a radio interview on Big Star Live where the DJ says that what they're doing is a big throwback to the British Invasion, but he was very, very wrong. They've taken the melodies and high harmonies and chugging guitars from the British Invasion and made something very domestic, something that could have only come out of Memphis. The section where they add the R&B horns (with trilling blues-rock guitar) doesn't sound like anything that the Beatles or Kinks ever did. But when Chilton wrote music, it was something else.

His first track, "The Ballad of El Goodo," is next. He's a big fan of Gram Parsons, and his first album (which is now called 1970) has a lot of the trappings of Parsons' art-country songs. This one is in that vein, but has a few chords that show that Chilton was raised on jazz. The song starts in the key of C (with a cool Am7 for minor dissonance in the first line). The second line starts on a Bm, which suggests that the key is now G, which is similar enough to C that most people won't notice, but then the line ends with a D#, which is a half-step up (or down) from any chord that would appear in either G or C. The rest of the song jumps back and forth between G and C without really drawing attention to itself, and, in fact, when he goes to an F (which translates to C, but not really G), the guitars bend the rules by adding a G into the chords. It's subtle, like I say, but it keeps the song off-kilter while still allowing Bell and Chilton to work out the gorgeous melody.

Most of the rest on #1 Record is more traditionally bluesy or garage-y or folky, although they keep the Memphis swing on a few of the tracks. The riff in "In The Street" is pretty neat with its disregard for keeping in key. "The India Song" is the only part of the record that sounds dated to me. But, man, when Bell leaves, and Chilton has the band to himself on Radio City, all the rules get rewritten.

Start with "O My Soul," a gospel-influenced funk-influenced rock song in A7 (I think), but played like no guitarist had played a song before. That opening ba-ba-ba-ba-ba thing is all in A, but he plays the note on two different strings to maximize the odd intonation difference between a fretted A on the low string and an open A on the next string. Then he hits his chords, playing a rhythm that's far enough off the beat to be the primary rhythmic element of the song, which is very much in the Memphis R&B style, very influenced by Steve Cropper. He hops up five frets and does it again, then back down. Then he hits those next notes, the second part of the song, which isn't a chorus or pre-chorus or anything, but just part of how he winds his progression around, and sweet Jesus, they're all over the fretboard - and he plays them with such ease that the listener can't tell how deeply weird this all is. Then he wraps it all up to a place where he has to stop and start again. And that's how the song proceeds, winding through this progression but changing it every time to add a new part or skip a part or play a section twice. There's no logic to it - less, I'd argue, than the logic guiding Trout Mask Replica, and yet it's freaking brilliant and as naturalistic as if, y'know, that's how songs go.

Andy Hummel [note: a guy Phil was about to interview] wrote much of the rest of the album with Chilton, and I'll point out "Back of a Car" as a song that makes no sense to people raised on rock guitar. The whole song is mainly in D, so it starts in a D chord, drops the A to an Ab (which makes it the only song I know of that's ever done this), goes to an A for a couple of bluesy chugga-chuggas, then a C (not in the key of D), pause, G, F#/D, Em back to G, and full stop. The progression is wrong, wrong, wrong with that Ab and C in there, but it has a powerful logic behind it and demands the resolution that it gets. The second part of the song changes key discordantly at the end of the 2nd line every time.

"September Gurls," too: such a beautiful, sunny song, but every chord on there is fractured and wrong. It starts with a D major, but often what seems like another D major in the progression is actually a G major 7. Actually, there's a lot of chords in that song that are maj and min 7 chords (which add a note a half-step down from the root, which can be extraordinarily pleasant) in place of the expected major chord. Then the bridge ("When I get to bed...") use a bunch of chords I don't even know the name of to simultaneously mirror the descending line of the melody, follow the basic A to G in the bass, and provide a counterpoint on the high strings. That's just fucked, especially in a song that seems so transparent.

There's quite a few other examples like this on Radio City where Chilton messes with the standard I-IV-V progression. And Sister Lovers is full of these. Most of those songs are unplayable on a single guitar. Well, you can play them, but they won't sound the same. In Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis, there's a story about how they invited Steve Cropper to come over and play on some of the Sister Lovers tracks, but he refused to enter into the studio. "Bad vibes in there," he explained. So they ran him out some headphones and a long cable and he played his parts in the parking lot.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Music Library: EDO, E/Eels, El-P, Electric Eels, Electric Six, Electric Wizard, Eleventh Dream Day, Elf Power, Eliot Fisk, Elis Regina

EDO - Walking With The Dogs (1988), "I Love Marijuana," and "Looking for Bob." EDO is a Philly-based Beefheartian spaz-rock experience led by the irrepressible Eliot Duhan. Why don't I have the rest of the EDO albums? I don't know.

Eels/E - Broken Toy Shop (1993), "Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas," Blinking Lights And Other Revelations (2005), and "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man." I had the first of these, a solo album by Mark Oliver "E" Everett, classified incorrectly in my library. But it doesn't matter, because I dislike that album and am going to delete it. The Xmas track and Prince cover are decent, though. And the Blinking Lights album has some definite high points.

El-P - High Water (2004) and "EMG." The first is a collaboration between the producer El-P and the avant-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp. It's actually pretty great. The single track is on El-P's 2007 hip-hop album I'll Sleep When You're Dead, and I've been meaning to pick that up since I heard this track, which was a free offering by eMusic back in the day.

electric eels - "You're Full Of Shit" and "Jaguar Ride." A ridiculously influential Cleveland protopunk band, the electric eels would - ah, heck. Just read the Wikipedia article. I've had these two singles forever, and keep meaning to pick up the compilation that came out a few years ago.

Electric Six - Fire (2003). The single "Danger! High Voltage" is the highlight and guiding force behind this album, which is sleazy in the extreme, blending disco and AC/DC-ish power rock with entendres that are barely even double.

Electric Wizard - Supercoven (1998) and Dopethrone (2000). How do you know that Dopethrone is one of the greatest doom metal albums of all time? Because the cover art has Satan hitting a bong, that's how! Absurdly heavy psychedelic metal designed and executed for the primary intentions of melting your brain. Because that's what Satan wants. When he's high.

Eleventh Dream Day - Ursa Major (1994). Great indie rock album that walks carefully between Neil Young and Sonic Youth. I used to have a copy of the even-better next one, Eighth, too, but I can't seem to find it now. Oh, well. Oh, and Janet Beveridge Bean rules.

Elf Power - When The Red King Comes (1997), A Dream In Sound (1999), Live In Michigan 2001, and Nothing's Going To Happen (2002). There's some lousy-named bands outta the Elephant Six Collective, but none with a moniker worse than Elf Power. And yet Elf Power is one of the better E6 bands, with a great sense of glam rock running through their trippy/fuzzy/poppy psychedelic rock. The first of these is a concept album about the Red King, which has to be some sort of oblique King Crimson reference, although I don't get it. It includes a straightforward cover of Brian Eno's "Needles in the Camel's Eye." A Dream In Sound has an even more psychedelic sound, although the lyrics don't appear to be as wacky as the prior album. The Live In Michigan album is a bootleg I ganked from an E6 tribute website some years ago. Nothing's Going To Happen is an all-cover album with Elf Power doing songs by the Tall Dwarfs, Roky Erickson, Bad Brains, T. Rex, Sonic Youth, and Husker Du, among others. The most amusing cover is a poppy version of the Misfits' "Hybrid Moments."

Eliot Fisk - Niccolo Paganini: 24 Caprices (1992). Classical guitar with speed and precision enough to make Yngwie (Fucking) Malmsteen befoul his trousers.

Elis Regina - The Somewhat Essential Elis Regina. Elis Regina is the bossanova legend who recorded the sublime "Águas de Março" with Tom Jobim, a track that never fails to elicit a smile, especially when she cracks up towards the end. This is a compilation made by my pal Don Slutes with tracks from four or five of Elis Regina's great albums, especially the ones with Tom Jobim and Toots Thielemans.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Music Library: Dusty Springfield, Dwight Yoakum, Earth, Earthless, Eddie Hazel

Dusty Springfield - Dusty In Memphis [Deluxe Edition] (1969) and Love Songs (2001 compilation). Dusty In Memphis is a stone-cold R&B classic from the high Atlantic Wexler/Dowd days. This deluxe edition is a wonderful remastering with added tracks, and belongs in the collection of anyone who is serious about R&B music. Love Songs is a Rhino compilation that adds a bunch of worthy, but previously unreleased, songs to a couple of Springfield's best-known work.

Dwight Yoakam - Just Lookin' For A Hit (1989). An early greatest-hits collection from the man before he really had any greatest hits. But the tracks are Bakersfield-via-Blasters rockabilly/country Americana and make a great argument for Yoakam's place among the great country singers.

And that's it for the Ds! Now in a wildly different mood, here's the introduction to the surprisingly guitar-heavy Es in the form of the mind-melting avant-metal sludgefeasters Earth:

Earth - Earth 2 (1993), Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions (1995), Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars (1995), Pentastar: In The Style Of Demons (1996), Hex; or Printing In the Infernal Method (2005), Hibernaculum (2007), and The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull (2008). Where ambient music is often taken with the prospect of gentling molding the listener's perceptions, most ambient music is about improvement and relaxation. Earth - taking its name from Black Sabbath's original name - created the particular type of ambient metal known as drone. We've seen the influence in Boris and we'll see it again more directly in Sunn 0))). The Melvins provided some of the background for this music, as did avant-garde minimalists Tony Conrad and Glenn Branca. But here's the deal: Earth makes soundscapes with electric guitars, sometimes bass, and sometimes drums. Earth 2 is the ground zero of drone, with three tracks that stretch over about an hour and fifteen minutes. Phase 3 has far shorter tracks with lots of genuine riffs. Sunn Amps opens with a live 30-minute drone track (which was the entirety of the original release and which, amusingly, quotes liberally from "Free Bird") and is followed by four tracks from a 1990 demo, including one featuring vocals by Earth guitarist Dylan Carlson's old friend and roommate Kurt Cobain. Pentastar, like Phase 3, has a bunch of riffs and shorter songs and, glory be, drums. After Pentastar, Carlson was lost for a number of years to drugs and the irresponsible life. He (and Earth) returned in 2005 with Hex, which made a surprising shift into country-ish instrumentals with a hardcore Morricone feel. And yes, it's still drone-y ambient doom metal at times, but just as often it's utterly beautiful Telecaster-driven Western music, the soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist (let's say it's Sam Peckinpah's masterful take on Blood Meridian). Hibernaculum is more Western music, with three older tracks redone in Earth's new style and one superlong new track. The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull has a number of shorter (for Earth, at least) tracks, but continues the style of Hex. Excellent stuff, as is...

Earthless - Sonic Prayer (2005), Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky (2007), and Live At Roadburn (2008). Despite the apparent opposition of their names, Earth and Earthless have a few things in common. One is the tendency towards veeeeerrrrrrrrry long instrumentals, although Earthless pushes those extremes even further than Earth. The other is an attempt to make druggy music for druggy people, although they have opposite means to achieve this. Where Earth slows everything down into a spacey haze, Earthless has an aggressive psychedelic rock style that recalls not just the heavy sounds of Black Sabbath, but the trippy/funky riffs of Can, the sheer sonic assault of Acid Mothers Temple, and the sonically adventurous guitar histrionics of Jimi Hendrix. And here's the craziest thing about it: it doesn't just work, but it freaking rocks every second. Who in their right mind would think that a three-piece playing 20 minutes songs at a time could be so damn exciting? Actually, their Live At Roadburn set simply runs a couple of these 20-minute opuses (opi?) together on each side, leading to the whole double album being taken up with two 40-minute tracks. Two 40-minute, utterly exhilarating, breathless even, tracks that rock like crazy and leave you wanting more. Man! Who makes music like this?

Eddie Hazel - Game Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977). This is the P-Funk guitar genius' only solo album during his lifetime. Although he'd been mostly replaced in the P-Funk lineup by the time this was released (he had behavior problems related to his daily intake of drugs, drugs, and more drugs), he's backed by the full force of the P-Funk crew on this album. There's a cover of "California Dreamin'," a cover of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and a whole lotta funk, with vocals primarily by the Brides of Funkenstein and every song featuring Hazel's unique funk/Hendrix/Cosey guitar histrionics. Good lord, yes.

Reading Rainbow Roundup: The Hamlet, Rock Star Babylon, Rum Sodomy & The Lash, Love Is A Mix Tape, and Murder For Profit

Since all I do here now is blabble away about music, I thought I could raise the stakes and natter about books, too! Yeah! I had some down time recently that I could spend reading, and I leapt at the chance to do so. So here's what I read:

The Hamlet - William Faulkner. This is the first of the Snopes trilogy, and although I've read a bunch of Faulkner's novels - many over & over again - this was the first time I had read this one. And it was a blast. Faulkner obviously was having a hell of a great time writing it, stuffing some of his trademark poetry into a sequence about a retarded man's physical love for a cow, for instance, or spending 20 pages delving into the backstory of a minor character just so he could abruptly cut to his murder by shotgun. Although this story was so great that I sort of wish that I had read it many years ago, I'm also happy that I didn't read it until now. It doesn't break the hold that the Compson stories - especially Absalom! Absolam! - have on my imagination and heart, but it adds to my appreciation and awe of Faulkner's work, and it's a great thing when you can find something new to love about an author you've considered among your favorites for nearly 20 years. I'm going to add the next two Snopes novels (that's The Town and The Mansion) to my list, but I'm not going to rush into them. Hell, it took Faulkner 17 years to get back around to the Snopes story, and as I'm entering middle age, I find that I'm not in as much hurry to get there as I used to be, either. Funny how you want to slow down when time is starting to rush by faster, getting more and more precious, but that's life, baby.

Rock Star Babylon - Jon Holmes. From the awe-inspiring to the awful and insipid in one small step. Most of what I know about Holmes is that he's a British radio DJ, and I would guess from this book that he's a lad-mag-loving shock-jock type. See, he takes a great idea: he's going to tell the apocryphal stories of rock music à la Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, because they're fun and schlocky regardless of their truth. But Holmes is really, really, really fucking lazy. The book reads like he knocked it out in a couple of days with minimal research and the dipshittiest humor that just cracks up his buddies and sycophants. By which I mean every page is packed to the gills with queer panic jokes. Because, I suppose, if one doesn't think that homosexual men and women are inherently hilarious (because they're gay! Get it?) then one must (ha ha ha) be uptight or something. Or maybe - and I'm just throwing this out there - maybe it's just not very funny.

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (33 1/3) - Jeffrey T. Roesgen. But, see, here's a guy writing about music who has not just a working brain and a work ethic but moreover can write like hell. Jeff Roesgen's 33 1/3 book is about the great Pogues album, yes, but it's also a well-researched work of fiction built around the cover art, a modified version of Théodore Géricault's painting Le Radeau de la Méduse with the band members' faces superimposed over the faces of the men on the raft. Here's the story of the Medusa, for your reading pleasure. Roesgen tells the story from the point of view of a musician - Jem from the Pogues, if I'm reading it correctly - who has sailed with the Medusa with the rest of his band (who are, indeed, the Pogues) and who ends up on the fateful raft after the captain stranded the vessel in open seas. Along the way, Roesgen pauses his narrative to talk about the songs on the album. I found the novella quite affecting and the analysis enlightening. I've read some complaints about the use of fiction as a way of discussing music, but I clearly don't give a shit. And neither does Roesgen, and thank god for it.

Love Is A Mix Tape - Rob Sheffield. Sheffield's day job is reviewing music and other aspects of pop culture for Rolling Stone, but this memoir dates to his life before his writing success, when he was a grad student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He fell in love with a girl - a fellow DJ and aspiring writer - and then he married her. They lived happily for a few years, and then she suddenly passed away from a pulmonary embolism one day while they were at home together. Christ, the horror. Sheffield frames his story around a series of mix tapes that he made or she made for him, which incidentally (and poignantly) captures how important mix tapes were us music geeks in the pre-CD days. The girl he loved: I should say something about her, because he writes about her so beautifully and clearly. But it's hard to do so, because that's really what the book is about, introducing people who never got the chance to meet her to the girl he loved. I'll say that her niece, who she unfortunately never knew, is my son's best friend at their preschool. And after reading this story, I can see a lot of the aunt in the niece, which is also a little beautiful and poignant. I told her mother, who clearly misses her sister, that I had read the book, and she sent me this, an article that she called Love Is A Virgin, which further illuminates how unfortunate we all are that her time was so short. I read this book just after a funeral, my wife's beloved grandmother, and I also couldn't help but feel for my wife's grandfather, a widower now like Sheffield, and how horrible it is to survive, to suddenly have a person-shaped hole in your life.

Murder For Profit - William Bolitho. This one was a recommendation from Leonard Pierce, and bless him for it. This is a fictionally-written nonfiction take on several serial killers in history, written in 1926 by a guy whose real name might have been Charles or William Ryall (the web is unclear on the matter), and GODDAMN could this guy write. The whole book can be taken as an attempt to profile a serial killer in the early days of psychology with the variable results you may expect, but Bolitho's wit and style carry him through the stories. If you have the patience to read it online, here's one of the chapters, a section on George Joseph Smith, who murdered a number of women in 19-teens England in a money-making scheme that recalled the gritty/horrific movie The Honeymoon Killers. Consider some of Bolitho's lines here:

  • "Truth loves economy; there is no need to make her a fool, or him a genius."

  • "It is an act, a corporal violence, like the thong of a whip laid across her face, the apparently senseless, but by no means causeless, worrying of a sheep by a vicious dog. The passivity, the meekness of this educated woman had aroused some other nameless devil in him besides his biting fear-born avarice. Other dupes were to him only jumping figures in a cash-book. This most unhappy woman was to him flesh and blood. She had landed on the island of his egotism; he was afraid he was not alone."

  • "The way of a murderer and a boa-constrictor are opposite. Where the one sweetens with his saliva, the other must carefully contrive to hate." [This is my favorite.]

  • "At thirty-eight a woman's affairs are her own concern, and seldom easy to tell."
It's out of print, but there's used copies to be had on the cheap from Amazon. Avail yourselves!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Music Library: Dream Syndicate, Drink Me, Drive-By Truckers, Drivin' N' Cryin', Duane Allman, Duke Ellington, Dukes of Stratosphear, Dump, Dungen

The Dream Syndicate - The Dream Syndicate EP (1982), Medicine Show (1984), and It's Too Late To Stop Now (1989). The EP is a great slice of VU-inspired rock, but Medicine Show is so marred by crappy 1980s "this is college rock" production that I could barely listen to it. The last one (sharing its name with a Van Morrison live album) is a collection of demos and live tracks from after the band broke up, and I like it much better than Medicine Show.

Drink Me - "St. Monday." Trumpet-driven melancholia. This was almost certainly off of a mix tape at some point.

The Drive-By Truckers - Gangstabilly (1998), Pizza Deliverance (1999), Southern Rock Opera (2001), and A Blessing And A Curse (2006). I have mixed feelings about the DBT. On one hand, I find myself quite moved by the stories, especially when Patterson Hood sings (and "Let There Be Rock" off of Southern Rock Opera may be one of my favorite songs by anyone), but on the other hand, their attempt to keep the sound very much in the major-key classic rock tradition leads to a lot of similar-sounding music. Some tracks rise above, and some seem stillborn, but most hang out in the middle, hard to distinguish from each other. On A Blessing And A Curse, the DBT honed their edge right off and made a lot of middling music. I don't have any of the other albums with Jason Isbell on them, but I hate his blue-eyed soul voice and the Bon Jovi production on his songs, which by itself would make this album my least-favorite, but even Hood and Mike Cooley sound like they're trying to write music for Clear Channel on this album. Makes me afraid to further investigate the other post-Southern Rock Opera albums. Oh, and I should probably mention that being a product of Alabama does indeed make me more sympathetic to Hood's attempts to get to the bottom of "the duality of the Southern thing," as he puts it. I can see where that album might be ponderous to some, but I don't care.

Drivin' N' Cryin' - Scarred But Smarter (1986). Yeah, the shitty frat-rock band from Atlanta. I like this album, which has a heldover punk feeling among the acoustic-emo ballads. So sue me.

Duane Allman - An Anthology (1972) and An Anthology, Vol. 2 (1974). I once visited Duane Allman's grave in Macon. It's on a lovely hillside overlooking one of those uber-pictoral train tracks that cross the South, and while I was there, a light rain began to fall from the sky and a train passed. It was rather like being in an Allman Brothers song. These collections feature a bunch of Allman's studio work from Muscle Shoals, plus some Derek & the Dominoes and Allman Brothers Band tracks. Most surprising: Boz Scaggs' "Lend Me A Dime," where Duane is given free rein to wail for several minutes. Aretha and Wilson Pickett (especially on a regrettable cover of "Born To Be Wild") are far from their best here, but Duane sounds great, anyway.

Duke Ellington - Take The 'A' Train (1941), Money Jungle (1962), Far East Suite (1966), The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), and Best of the Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. A genius of modern music whose music bleeds into the compositions of many of my favorites and indeed defines much of the 20th century, so what the hell am I going to say about the guy? The first and last are collections of some of his most notable big-band music from earlier in the 20th century. Money Jungle is a stripped-back affair with Duke, Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums, and it - can I say that it rocks? Because it rocks. The Far East Suite was a big-band album from the 60s that Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote, inspired by a trip through not just the Far East, but Africa and the Middle East, too. This influence continued, as The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse is as much world music as it is jazz. I'm not sure what other Ellington I need, but I'm planning on picking up his famous Newport album at some point in the near future, too.

The Dukes of Stratosphear - "Brainiac's Daughter." I don't much care for XTC, which is who this really is. This track is an okay Beatles-y thing.

Dump - "1999." This is a great cover of the Prince track from Dump, which is the solo side-project of James McNew, who plays bass in Yo La Tengo for his day job. It's built on an excellent drum loop which reminds me of YLT's cover of KC & The Sunshine Band's "You Can Have It All." I should check out more of his music.

Dungen - Dungen (2001), Ta Det Lugnt (2004), and 4 (2008). Swedish psychedelic music using grandpa's guitars plus flutes und other psych trappingks. Ist gut.
Next time: the rest of the Ds (Dusty Springfield and Dwight Yoakum), then onward to the Es!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Music Library: Dr. Alimantado, Dr. Dog, Dr. Dre, Dr. John

Dr. Alimantado - The Best Dressed Chicken In Town (1978). Killer, killer reggae album.

Dr. Dog - Fate (2008). One of the worst-named bands in all of rockdom really, really, really likes The Beatles.

Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992). Har-de-har-har, I was working on a joke about how obscure this is, but I haven't the heart to foist it upon an unsuspecting world.

Dr. John - Gris-Gris (1968), "Loop Garoo" (1970), Dr. John's Gumbo (1972), Goin' Back To New Orleans (1992), The Very Best of Dr. John (1995). The first album is one of the most psychedelic albums of 1968, no lie. Dr. John (Creaux was the surname he was using at the time) turned his back on his rockabilly persona (under his real name Mac Rebennack) with a vengeance, embracing the sound of voodoo New Orleans, and his first four albums (Gris-Gris was the first one of four similar albums, and I should pick up the next three) sound almost Brazilian - which makes sense, as a lot of traditional Brazilian music was built on the sounds of Condomble, the Brazilian version of voodoo. "Loop Garoo" is from the third Dr. John album, Remedies, and, interestingly enough, sounds a lot like a Tom Waits track, enough to fool the casual listener at first blush. Dr. John's Gumbo is where Dr. John switched gears and began making good-time music instead, starting with perennial crowd favorite "Iko Iko." Goin' Back To New Orleans is a later album with a number of standards and traditional Mardi Gras songs among the good-time music. The Very Best features a number of tracks from the 70s on either side of the voodoo/good-time line.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Music Library: Dos, Dosh, Double Dee & Steinski, DoubleHappys, Doug Martsch, Doug Sahm

Dos - Uno Con Dos (1986) and Live 1997. The only band to feature 2 bassists, infrequent vocals, and punk legends Mike Watt and Kira Roessler, Dos has been around since roughly 1985, and took shape mainly as a way of helping Watt to deal with his grief over D. Boon's death. But Watt and Kira have serious talent and many of the tracks on Uno Con Dos, which compiles their first album Dos (1986) and their followup EP Numero Dos (1989), later developed into fIREHOSE songs or worked their way into Watt's solo albums. Not for everyone, but definitely for those who get excited by the prospect of listening to Watt & Kira jam together. I keep meaning to pick up their mid-90s album Justamente Tres, so maybe I will now.

Dosh - Pure Trash (2004). I know of Martin Dosh primarily as Andrew Bird's collaborator, so I was curious about his solo work, which I had read also features his heavily looped percussion and keyboards. This album is absolutely lovely, and I am intending to investigate further. It opens with a loop of a woman (Dosh's wife, apparently) discussing pregnancy, features songs about marriage and children, and closes with loops of a baby cooing and fussing. That's intensely poignant.

Double Dee & Steinski - The Payoff Mix (1985). These three influential tracks led to the explosion of sampling in hip-hop. Double Dee & Steinski apparently were the first DJs to realize that they could swipe from any number of sources other than funk and disco, and the three Lessons here ("Lesson 1: The Payoff Mix," "Lesson 2: The James Brown Mix," and "Lesson 3: The History of Hip Hop Mix") took samples from tv, movies, tapdancing instruction records, and any number of other sources.

DoubleHappys - Nerves (1992). A typically fantastic kiwi-rock band that fell apart when one of the members died in a tragic train accident. This album compiles tracks from 1983 & 1984.

Doug Martsch - Now You Know (2002). Solo album by the frontman for Built To Spill. It's heavy on open-tuned acoustic tracks that prominently feature a slide, and reminds me of Bob Mould's excellent Workbook album.

Doug Sahm - The Best of Doug Sahm & The Sir Douglas Quintet 1968-1975 and The Return of Wayne Douglas (2000). Doug Sahm was a major figure in the creation of a Tex-Mex sound that blends country, rock, and Tejano music. The compilation brings together a bunch of great tracks from the Sir Douglas Quintet days and is sequenced to flow from groovy Mexicali garage rock to twangy country-rock. The latter album is a posthumous release with Sahm playing some of his older tracks along with new ones. Sahm's voice is definitely more gravelly on this one, but he sounds like he's having a blast, and that's a fitting coda for a guy like him.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Music Library: Dolly Mixture, Dolly Parton, Don Caballero, Don Cherry, Don Gibson, Don Rich, DOOM, Doris Duke + Danger Doom, Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse

Dolly Mixture - Demonstration Tapes (1983). As much as I love the Pipettes (which is lots!), they weren't the first band to attempt to meld 60s girl-group harmonies with post-punk snarl. That title goes to this band, the awesome Dolly Mixture, who sounded like The Shangri-Las fronting The Damned. This is a reissue of their double-album from 1983 that may or may not include some of their singles, as well. The information I've found on the web is contradictory.

Dolly Parton - The Essential Dolly Parton, Vol. 2 (recorded 1970s & 80s). I love those Dolly Parton songs from right around when she was ditching Porter Wagoner for her own career. For some reason, the Essential Dolly Parton, Vol. 1 focused on her early 80s hits ("9 to 5" and such) and had a re-recorded version of "I Will Always Love You" from the 80s. Maybe that's essential for some people, but not for me. This collection has the original version of "I Will Always Love You," a song so gorgeous and pure that it leaves me breathless (and yes, this is the same song that Whitney Houston ululated all over for that Kevin Costner movie, but it's best if we all agree to ignore that version as the abomination it is). Also included: "Coat of Many Colors," her 1971 hit that addresses her childhood poverty dead-on, "Joshua," the feminist anthem "Just Because I'm A Woman," and "Jolene," a song of such raw emotional immediacy that it's practically proto-punk. Afterwards, the collection veers into her crossover pop hits of the late 70s, which don't interest me as much, although they helped to make Parton into a multi-gazillionaire.

Don Caballero - What Burns Never Returns (1998). Is math rock jazz-metal? Or is it post-rock with distortion pedals? Sounding a little like Tortoise and a little like Slayer (and a little like music from space), Don Cabellero ultimately sounded like nobody else. What Burns Never Returns is still a surprising album.

Don Cherry - Live At Cafe Montmartre 1966 Volume Two (1966) and Symphony For Improvisers (1966). Cherry first came to prominence as Ornette Coleman's sideman. Despite sharing a name on an album with Coltrane in 1961 (The Avant-Garde), Cherry didn't start putting out albums as a bandleader until 1965 with Complete Communion, an improv-heavy set that echoed his work as a sideman to Coleman and Albert Ayler. These two albums followed shortly thereafter. Live At Cafe Montmartre is a 5-piece with Gato Barbieri on sax plus vibes, bass, and drums, and the highlight for me is the Ayler medley of "Holy Spirit" and "Ghosts." Symphony For Improvisers expands his Complete Communion quartet into a septet with vibes, a second bassist, and Pharoah Sanders on piccolo, and it's a killer set.

Don Gibson - A Legend In My Time (recorded 1957-1965). One of the greats of classic country, Gibson wrote such all-time classics as "Oh Lonesome Me," "Sweet Dreams," "Sea of Heartbreak," and "I Can't Stop Loving You." He's a great entertainer, and his songs - even the less famous of them - pack a punch that's helped along by his lean instrumentation and Jordanaires-style backing singers.

Don Rich & The Buckaroos - Country Pickin': The Don Rich Anthology (recorded 1961-1974). Don Rich was the bandleader of Buck Owens' Buckaroos, and these tracks focus on his unique contributions to the Bakersfield sound. Rich started out as Owens' fiddler, but switched to lead guitar at some point in their long collaboration. Many of these tracks are instrumentals, but Rich was a great singer, too, and quite a few feature his lead vocals. Anyway, this is an amazing collection of songs from a guy who spent his career on the sidelines before his all-too-early death in 1974 at a mere 32 years of ago.

Donald Fagen - "I.G.Y." No fan of Steely Dan am I, despite the best efforts of well-meaning friends. And this song, from Donald Fagen's solo album The Nightfly, makes me cringe. While snorting coke off of the dashboard of my vintage Mustang while driving aimlessly about LA with a dead hooker in the trunk.

DOOM - Born Like This. (2009). This album is the most problematic of DOOM's career. It's sharp and clever, as you would expect from MF Doom, but it's also bogged down by the homophobic "Batty Boyz" (which samples one of Jeff Dunham's "comedy" routines) and the track "Cellz" features some 18 hours of Charles Bukowski reading his poetry before DOOM cuts in. My pal Nate has a clearer take on it from Pitchfork, to which I link because I'm still befuddled by the damn thing.

Doris Duke - I'm A Loser (1970). Swamp Dogg is one of the least-appreciate soul genuises of the modern era, turning out utterly brilliant R&B sides for years with little but cult recognition. Imagine the pain of being his protogee, as the case was for poor Doris Duke here. This is her first album, a brilliant piece of Stax-ish soul with smoldering Aretha-esque vocals. Why isn't it huge? I don't know. But I do know that Duke followed it few a few more albums that were even more poorly received and then retired from music, current whereabouts unknown. This one's a killer, though, so seek it out.


Danger Doom - Occult Hymn EP (2006). The followup to the excellent The Mouse And The Mask album, this one is slighter and somewhat less fun.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse - Dark Night Of The Soul (2009). This album, of course, has never actually been released, and it seems to exist only in a half-state of digital content that can be found only in a succession of 1s and 0s on the net. Which isn't that different from Danger Mouse's calling card debut The Grey Album, come to think of it. Anyway, strangely enough, it feels to me more like a Sparklehorse album than a Danger Mouse album, although it's credited to both. The guest vocalists on every track lead me to suspect that Mark "Sparklehorse" Linkous may not even appear on the album. Still, the songs sound like Sparklehorse songs, but after a dozen or so listens, I don't think they're as strong as his material usually is. By which I mean that the lyrics and melodies never stick in my head like Sparklehorse songs tend to do. Danger Mouse's sounds are as excellent as always. It's odd that I don't love this album more. I mean, I like it fine, and I'm intrigued with it enough to keep playing it over and over. I think that I may grow to love it with time. My plan is to continue to revisit it until I get sick of it or decide that it is, actually, quite brilliant.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Music Library: Django Reinhardt, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, more Bob Dylan, Bonnie "Prince" Billy

There's a strange, but fitting, transition here from the swing virtuosity of Django Reinhardt to the bluegrass virtuosity of Doc Watson to the bluegrass primitivism of Dock Boggs.

Django Reinhardt - "Christmas Swing," The Indispensible Django Reinhardt (recorded 1949), and Verve Jazz Masters 38 (1993). Reinhardt is, of course, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, a guy who plays jazz guitar with a quicksilver skill that is as technically impressive as it is easy and enjoyable for listeners. No one hates Django Reinhardt. More impressive: Django lost the use of two fingers on his left hand in a fire when he was young, so all those incredibly fast runs around the fretboard, all those weird chordings, everything he played that you can listen to - all of that was executed with only two working fingers on his fretting hand. See, that's impossible. I think I could mathematically prove that it's impossible. And yet, it's true, and it's magic.

Doc Watson - The Best of Doc Watson: 1964-1968, Riding The Midnight Train (1986), Portrait (1987), Remembering Merle (1992), Docabilly (1994), and Del Doc & Mac (1998). Watson, blind since he was a baby, plays old-time folk and country with the speed and soul of a swing jazz guitarist. Watson's a great singer, too, with a rough and mournful edge in his voice that brings his songs on over. His first album came out in 1964, when Doc was already in his 40s. The first album here is a selection of tracks from the first 6 Watson albums, all produced for the Vanguard label. His son Merle joined him as his accompanyist starting with his second album in 1965. Merle played on subsequent Doc Watson albums for the next 20 years, but he was tragically killed in a tractor accident in 1985. Riding The Midnight Train was the last album that Merle played on, but Doc honors his son's memory every year with the extraordinary Merlefest bluegrass festival in Wilkesboro, NC. So, the music. I prefer the earlier material to the later albums, although the collection Remembering Merle, which features some of the best collaborations between the Watsons, is amazing, too. Docabilly is a rare departure for the man, featuring him playing electric guitar on a bunch of old rockabilly tunes (with Junior Brown on steel guitar!). But, nice as it is for the man to step out of his comfort zone, it ain't such a great album. Del Doc & Mac is a collaboration with Del McCoury and Mac Wiseman, and it sounds like a bunch of elderly masters of their genre having fun goofing around together, which is exactly what it is.

Dock Boggs - Country Blues: The Complete Early Recordings (1927-1929) and His Folkways Years, 1963-1968. One of the sources for Doc Watson's style, Boggs was a coal miner who recorded a few hillbilly records on his banjo in the 20s that sold moderately. Harry Smith uncovered them in the 50s and included them in his massive Anthology of American Folk Music, which spurred the folk resurgance of the early 60s, which gave the world Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, among others. Anyway, Boggs had pawned his banjo during the Great Depression, and didn't play again until 1963, when he bought a new banjo for himself only a month or two before the folk music anthologist Mike Seeger tracked him down. Seeger convinced Boggs to start playing for people at folk festivals and to record for the Folkways record label. These albums include everything Boggs recorded in the two phases of his music career. The Early Recordings is a Revenant release, which means that it's exquisitely documented and includes a few similar tracks for context. In this case, the context is provided by four recordings from Bogg's contemporaries Bill and Hayes Shepherd. The Folkways Years compiles the tracks from the three Folkways albums Boggs made throughout the 60s. Oh, and the music: Boggs sounds like the voice of hard living looking squarely down at Hell and knowing that's where he's heading and being torn between fear and unconcern. He's one of the most harrowing folk artists out there, but he's also a lot of fun to listen to. When you don't feel like killing yourself, that is.


Bob Dylan - New Morning (1970), Blood On The Tracks: New York Sessions (1974), and No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7) (2005). New Morning is an album that I coveted when I went through the Dylan albums a few months ago. It's one of the few new Sony albums on eMusic that I was excited about, so I downloaded it. And I'm glad I did, because it's wonderful. Blood on the Tracks: New York Sessions is a bootleg that features all of the original versions of the songs on Blood on the Tracks, which were originally recorded in NYC with Phil Spector producing. Concerned that the album was too monotonous, Dylan went to Minneapolis and re-recorded about half of the songs: "Tangled Up In Blue," "You're A Big Girl Now," "Idiot Wind," "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," and "If You See Her, Say Hello." So half of these songs were on the completed album. And three of the unreleased versions ("Tangled Up In Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "If You See Her, Say Hello") were included on the first Bootleg Series box set. So there's only two new tracks on this bootleg. I'm going to keep them and delete the rest. No Direction Home: The Soundtrack is another eMusic Sony album, and includes the incredibly rare music from the Scorcese documentary plus some more unreleased material that the archivists found, although it didn't make it into the movie. Great for Dylan fanatics!

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Matt Sweeney - Superwolf (2005). Sweeney is all over the place, fronting the band Chavez and recording with Zwan, Guided By Voices, Cat Power, Johnny Cash, Andrew W.K., Six Organs of Admittance, El-P, and the Dixie Chicks, among others. He's also been in the touring band for Will Oldham (aka the Bonnie Prince) for a number of years. On this album, the two collaborate to produce one of the strongest and most rocking albums in Oldham's repertoire.

My photo
Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

About This Blog

From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

  © Blogger templates Brooklyn by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP