Friday, November 29, 2013

Music Library: Steve Earle, Steve Hicken, Steve Martin, Steve Reich, Stevie Wonder, Stones, Stonewall Jackson, Stooges

Steve Earle - Guitar Town (1986), Exit 0 (1987), Train A-Comin' (1995), I Feel Alright (1996), El Corazon (1997), The Mountain (with the Del McCoury Band, 1999), Transcendental Blues (2000), Washington Square Serenade (2007). I really, really like Train A-Comin' and I Feel Alright, both of which are comeback albums of a sort. His 80s albums have an appealing outlaw country feel probably derived from his love of Townes Van Zandt, but there's some raw need for acceptance there, too, that Van Zandt never would have had. Train A-Comin', which is all acoustic, is Earle's first album upon getting out of jail, and it is his statement that he will make the music he wants no matter what. I Feel Alright is that music, rock-influenced but not quite rock, which unfortunately became a template for most of his following albums. The Mountain, a bluegrass album, breaks the mold, but most of the rest are fairly similar to I Feel Alright, with a few good songs and a lot of forgettable ones.

Steve Hicken - "Episodes In Anticipation" (2004) and WIU Festival (2011). Hicken's a friend of mine besides being a composer of no small talent. This is lovely, lovely music.

Steve Martin - Let's Get Small (1977) and A Wild And Crazy Guy (1978). It is impossible for me to overstate Steve Martin's influence on my sense of humor. Finding these albums as a teenager was like when I learned that 90% of what I had been taught in my middle school Alabama history classes was bullshit; there was another world out there, a better one where a smart guy could be funny and beloved by pretending to be a stupid guy who thought he was smart.  Martin added layer upon layer of irony to his jokes, sometimes allowing himself to be silly and nothing but and sometimes spinning a riff into something quite pointed. It made him a star, a spectacle on the strength of his persona, without really changing his act at all. I mean, sure, the cocaine and manic unpredictability may have had something to do with that. However, I picked up the 3-DVD set The Television Stuff last year, which includes videos of Martin throughout his late-70s period, and even when it seems like his show is about to go off the rails, Martin was actually maintaining a fairly professional script throughout his shows. So, anyway, the problem with going back to something so instrumental to oneself is that history is often unkind to modern ears. See, these albums are still hilarious, except when they aren't. Martin's riffs on Native Americans, his "urban" voices, all of his jokes about nonwhite cultures: these aren't funny. In the late 70s, these bits may have been mildly transgressive stuff, but now they just seem xenophobic and racist, the turd in the punch bowl. Dammit, history! These aren't even 40 years old yet. That said, I still love these albums, but it's more like I loved my granddad, even when he was racist. Enjoy this video from Steve Martin Presents Homage To Steve, a video so beloved that I just want to hug it. I mean, I just about lose it from the moment that he spits his mouthful of water out on the stage.

OK, I'm back. Sorry, I just lost my mind for a minute there.

Steve Reich - Violin Phase (1967), Reich: Four Organs - Phase Patterns (1971), Reich: Music For 18 Musicians (1978), Drumming (1987), Different Trains (2005). Reich is one of the greats of minimalism. Like Terry Riley, Reich's compositions include a large amount of variability written into the music. Violin Phase takes two recordings of the same violin piece and slowly phases them out of sync with each other by introducing moments of silence in one recording, creating a fascinating phased effect. That album includes a recording of "It's Gonna Rain," a 1964 chopped-up monologue by a street preacher very reminiscent of Terry Riley's work of the same period. Four Organs and Phase Patterns advance the idea of phasing similar pieces of music, but they add some serious math into the duration of the phase, shifting the timing throughout to create weird synchronization and rather lovely disharmonies, too. Drumming is chronologically Reich's next composition, although the version I have is from 1987. This piece uses drums with different voicing in different time signatures to create a -- well, I'm going to have to be poetic about this -- an audio picture of mathematical space-time. Everything starts with basic 4/4 beats in whole notes, then the measures half, then quarter, and then the introduction of new drums start to phase into polyrhythms. The effect is brilliant. Then there's Music For 18 Musicians, which builds on the previous ideas of polyrhythmic timing, mathematically precise structures, and variability of musicians, and adds more sounds and more structure while loosening the basic notion of time required to perform the piece. In fact, you don't even need to limit yourself to 18 musicians to perform it. Finally, the last Reich piece I have is Different Trains, originally performed by Kronos Quartet, but in this version by the Smith Quartet. Different Trains samples spoken word interviews about the American and European train systems before and after WWII. The Americans, which include a Pullman porter, talk about class and social movement, while the Europeans, all Holocaust survivors, talk about the darker implications of trains. After each sample, the lead voice of the quartet (viola for women and cello for men) mirrors the inflection of the passage while the other voices race down the trails and provide whistle sounds.

Stevie Wonder - Music Of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness' Final Finale (1974), Funkafied Rainbow: Live In London (bootleg, 1974), Songs In The Key Of Life (1976), Original Musiquarium I (partial compilation, released 1982). That's a lot of psychedelic soul music right there. Stevie Wonder would be an outlier in the field of R&B or soul just from his tendency to mix his music with funk and psychedelic sounds, but his expression of his particular vision and genius is what makes his music transcendental and universal. There's not a stinker in this whole group, but Talking Book and Innervisions are the pinnacle. If I have any criticism, it's that the 80s production on the original tracks from the Original Musiquarium are more dated than the earlier recordings. The bootleg is solid and worth searching out. In the video below, when Stevie sings about being glad to be alive towards the beginning, he's referring to an accident that year where his car collided with a log truck outside of Durham, NC. He was struck by a log on the head and nearly died, and the experience transformed him.

The Stones - Dunedin Double EP (1982) and Another Disc, Another Dollar EP (1983). The Stones were a short-lived New Zealand band with the classic Flying Nun twitchy Feelies-esque sound. The Dunedin Double was actually a double-LP with tracks by the Chills, the Verlaines, and Sneaky Feelings in addition to the Stones, but all I have are the Stones' contributions. Another Disc was their only other release.

Stonewall Jackson - "Why I'm Walkin'." Just want to mention this excellent single.

The Stooges - The Stooges (1969), The Stooges Deluxe Edition (1969), Fun House (1970), Fun House Deluxe Edition (1970), 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions (1970, natch), I Got A Right (outtakes, 1972), Raw Power (Bowie Edition, 1973), Raw Power (Iggy Mix, 1973), Live In L.A. '73 (bootleg), Wild Love: The Detroit Rehearsals And More (outtakes, 1973), Head On (outtakes, 1974), Metallic K.O. (live, 1974), More Power (outtakes, 1974), Penetration (outtakes, 1974), and Jesus Loves The Stooges EP (Iggy and James Williamson, 1977). Do I even need to make an argument for the greatness of the Stooges or talk about how much I love them? I mean, I have THREE VERSIONS OF FUN HOUSE. And I'd buy another one tomorrow without a second thought. Raw Power comes only in the underpowered Bowie edition (which is the one to have) and the overpowered Iggy mix (which is almost unlistenably pushed into the red), and most of the outtake albums around it are somewhat unnecessary. I Got A Right may be the greatest unreleased song by any band ever, but no one needs 16 versions of it. Head On, in particular, is an utterly useless waste of money, while More Power may be the best of the outtakes. Metallic K.O. is an excellent document of Iggy's confrontational 1974 stage show, but you probably already know that if you've read this far. I've never picked up the re-formed Stooges-ish releases despite some compelling reasons to do so, but I will at some point. My heartfelt apologies to James Williamson and Mike Watt.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Music Library: Stereolab

Stereolab! This is where indie rock reaches one of its logical peaks. They mixed punk, krautrock, French pop, electronica, lounge music, minimalist compositional music, VU-style drone, hip-hop, and tropicalia, basically every form of niche music with legs, into an always-interesting stew of musical greatness.

Early Drone: Switched On (compilation, 1991), Peng! (1992), The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music EP (1993), and Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (1993). At this point, Stereolab was all about the VU and krautrock. Switched On collects two EPs and a single from 1991. Peng! is the first full-length, although the band was still a four-piece. Batchelor Pad Music is a long EP that showcases even more growth from the group. Transient Random-Noise adds Mary Hansen as a second vocalist and Sean O'Hagan (later of the High Llamas) on guitar, and the album culminates in the 18-minute "Jenny Ondioline" which is exactly the knife-edge of perfect fusion of krautrock propulsion and VU drone.

Everything At Once: Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), Refried Ectoplasm: Switched On Vol. 2 (compilation, 1992-95), Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996), Dots And Loops (1997), Aluminum Tunes: Switched On Vol. 3 (compilation, 1994-97), Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (1999), The First Of The Microbe Hunters EP (2000), and ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions (live compilation, 1991-2001). The band added more and more sounds with every album. Mars Audiac Quintet is practically a Neu! album in places. Refried Ectoplasm rounds up a bunch of singles, including the excellent "John Cage Bubblegum." Emperor Tomato Ketchup is one of the finest albums made by anyone, anywhere. Dots And Loops throws in more Brazilian sounds. Aluminum Sounds collects more EPs and nonalbum tracks, but it also has the first signs of Stereolab's tendency to over-release. Some of these tracks are terrible, but some are great. Then there's Cobra And Phases, my least-favorite Stereolab album, which sounds fussy and undercooked. Microbe Hunters is much stronger. ABC Music collects a lot of Peel Sessions and other Radio 1 Sessions, and it cooks like nobody's business.

Things Grow Static And Fall Apart: Sound-Dust (2001), Margerine Eclipse (2004), Oscillons From The Anti-Sun (compilation, 1993-2005), Fab Four Suture (compilation, 2005-6), Chemical Chords (2008), and Not Music (2010). Sound-Dust has a little more life than Cobra And Phases, but Mary Hansen was killed in an accident the next year. Stereolab wasn't sure whether to go on without her for a while, but finally released Margerine Eclipse in 2004, mostly as an elegy to Hansen. Oscillons has B-sides and nonalbum tracks from all throughout Stereolab's career, and it is wonderful. Fab Four stitches together four EPs, all pretty good. Chemical Chords and Not Music, both recorded in the same 2007 sessions, are also quite good.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Music Library: Stanley Brothers, Stanton Moore, Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, Stars, Steely Dan, Stéphane Grappelli, Stephen, Stephen Malkmus

The Stanley Brothers - Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947-52). These are the first recordings of Carter and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. To distinguish it from mainstream bluegrass, Ralph Stanley called it old-timey music. This is not just historically significant music, but also excellent. This compilation is on Revenant Records, the imprint co-founded by John Fahey.

Stanton Moore - Flyin' The Koop (2002). This is a jammy album by Galactic's drummer along with two sax guys, bass, and drums. It is okay, but not my favorite. It never really ends up anywhere.

The Staple Singers - Uncloudy Day (1959), Will The Circle Be Unbroken? (1960), Freedom Highway (1965), Soul Folk In Action (1968), The Best Of The Staple Singers (Stax) (1968-74), "Slippery People" (1984). It's hard to overstate how cool the Staple Singers were. The band consisted of Pops Staples, who managed to be laid-back and passionate at once,  his son Pervis and his three daughters Cleotha, Yvonne, and the baby Mavis, who usually sang lead. Pops Staples played heavily vibratoed Fenders with a cool, minimalist style that influenced people like, y'know, Steve Cropper and Robbie Robertson, who, in turn, influenced just about everybody. And the Staples leapt from strict gospel into pop music fired by uplift and civil disobedience, which brought them to the March on Washington. In the tumult of the late 60s, they signed with Stax and brought Southern funk built on positive messages with Booker T and the MGs as their airtight back-up band. Uncloudy Day and Circle are phenomenal gospel albums and Freedom Highway and Soul Folk are phenomenal protest-in-the-guise-of-R&B albums. The Stax best-of has some killer funk and "Slippery People" is a Talking Heads cover that is the highlight of a Pointer-Sisters-ish 80s keyboard-junk album that is bad enough that I let all the other tracks go. But this must have something to do with Pops Staples appearing in True Stories, but I don't know the background. Anyway, dig these videos.

Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone (2010) and One True Vine (2013). In her 70s and still going strong, Mavis made her most recent two solo albums with Jeff Tweedy, and they are fan-freaking-tastic. "One True Vine" is the better of the two, but not by much.

Stars - Heart (2003). This is a Canadian indie-pop band. And they're ok.

Steely Dan - Countdown To Ecstasy (1973) and Pretzel Logic (1974). You know how there's these bands loved by people you respect and you cannot for the life of you understand why? Here's one. Steely Dan sounds to me like the baby laxative people use to cut their coke. And yet they are beloved. I mean, I don't hate either of these albums, really, because they're just too freaking weird to be truly forgettable, but too slick to embrace their own weirdness. It's just studio talent fucking around. It seems passionless.

Stéphane Grappelli - Jazz In Paris (1962). This is a sweet album by Django Reinhardt's main sideman, made many years after Reinhardt's death. There are several albums by Grappelli with this same name. This one does not have Oscar Peterson, but it does have someone playing some lovely Django-esque guitar.

Stephen - Radar of Small Dogs (compilation, 1988-93). This is a messy and fun New Zealand band led by the Clean's David Kilgour. This compilation collects the Dumb EP and some demos and live tracks.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Stephen Malkmus (2001), Pig Lib (2003), Face The Truth (2005), Real Emotional Trash (2008), and Ege Bamyasi (Malkmus and Friends, 2013). Malkmus's post-Pavement music is good but rarely great. I have loved each of his albums for a little while and then more or less forgotten about it. The cover of Can's Ege Bamyasi is fun, although it is basically as disposable as Beck's Record Club albums.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Music Library: Spinal Tap, Spinanes, Spirit Caravan, Spiritualized, Spokane, Spoon, Squirrel Bait, Squirrel Nut Zippers, St. Vincent, Stan Getz

Spinal Tap - This Is Spinal Tap (1984). While I still love the movie, part of the problem with an ironic comedy album is that it fizzles after time.

The Spinanes - The Imp Years EP (2000). Pretty great indie-rock band from Olympia, WA.

Spirit Caravan - Dreamwheel EP (1999) and The Last Embrace (compilation, 1999-2003). This is an absolutely awesome short-lived doom metal trio led by Scott "Wino" Weinrich. The Last Embrace is a compilation containing tracks from both of their full-length albums, a few EPs, and some nonalbum tracks.

Spiritualized - Lazer Guided Melodies (1992) and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (1997). Spiritualized is a band that I like, but I have never made the plunge to pick up more of their albums. Part of this is because I think Lazer Guided Melodies is only so-so, even though Ladies And Gentlemen is excellent, partially an outsider's take on soul music.

Spokane - A Small Commotion (compilation, 2008). The quietest of all bands, Spokane plays a form of ultra-polite folk-rock that's barely there.

Spoon - All The Negatives Have Been Destroyed EP (1996), Soft Effects EP (1997), A Series Of Sneaks (1998), 30 Gallon Tank EP (1998), Love Ways EP (2000), Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill The Moonlight (2002), Gimme Fiction (2005), Sister Jack single (2005), Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007), Get Nice! (2007), Transference (2010). One of my favorite indie-rock bands, Spoon is built on the rock-solid rhythm machine of Jim Eno's drums and Brett Daniel's chunka-chunka guitar. The early EPs (sorry, I don't have their first full-length Telephono, although I wish I did), and Sneaks are building to the greatness of 30 Gallon Tank's "I Could Be Underground," Girls Can Tell, and Moonlight. Fiction, Ga Ga, and Transference are all also excellent, albeit a small step back in quality from their peak. Get Nice!, a bonus disc of demos that came with Ga Ga, is not so great.

Squirrel Bait - Skag Heaven (1987). The Louisville, KY hardcore band that splintered into Bastro, Gastr del Sol, and Slint, and later provided some integral components to the Chicago avant-rock scene. This is great stuff, with elements of math rock and start-stop dynamics.

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Hot (1997). Chapel Hill's contribution to the 90s swing revival has a love of all music from the early 20th century, which they mix into a pan-retro melange of blues, swing, calypso, and hillbilly music on this album.

St. Vincent - Marry Me (2007). The super-talented Annie Clark makes music that is incredibly odd and very, very good, and there really is no reason why I haven't picked up her 2nd and 3rd albums. I listened to them streaming, and I thought I had bought them at one point, but apparently not. Anyway, Marry Me, her debut, with its sly Arrested Development-joke title, is funny and surprising and heartfelt, and there are not that many artists who make music that can claim all three of these adjectives at once.

Stan Getz - Diz and Getz (1953), The Steamer (1956), Getz/Gilberto (1963). Getz was a giant of the saxophone, and these three albums show off his range from the smoking bop album with Dizzy Gillespie to the cool jazz of The Steamer to the uber-cool Brazilian samba fusion of Getz/Gilberto, recorded with guitarist Joao Gilberto, his wife Astrud (who Getz seduced), and Tom Jobim.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Music Library: Sparks, Spatula, Specials, Spectrum, Speed The Plough, Speedking, Speedy West, Spider Bags, Spike Jones

Sparks - Kimono My House (1974), Propaganda (1974), and Indiscreet (1975). Led by the brothers Mael, Sparks are an oddball band. At this phase they were a glam-ish pop vehicle with lots of Beefheartian weirdness and a seriously twisted sense of humor. Later they went electropop, but at this point they were still a proggy rock band. Sort of. And I just missed seeing them live this past weekend, so damn the organizers of the Mountain Oasis Festival for putting them on more-or-less opposite Neutral Milk Hotel.

Spatula - Despina By Land (1997). Post-rock from an instrumental Chapel Hill band with guitar, cello, and drums. Pretty good album, too. I picked it up after hearing them on the college radio station in 1997, and I still like it.

The Specials - The Specials (1979), Too Much Too Young (collection, 1979-1980), The Singles Collection (collection, 1979-84). The Specials are so fantastically great. They are, of course, the flagship band of the two-tone British ska revival. Only the first of these is a proper album, and neither of the two collections offers that much beyond it.

Spectrum - Geração Bendita (1971). Psychedelic tropicalia band with lotsa fuzz and lots of fun.

Speed The Plough - Speed The Plough (1989). And for a different type of psychedelia, Speed The Plough, a Feelies offshoot, plays quiet folk-rock with psych flourishes. Good stuff. There are some new compilations of STP out there that I intend to investigate.

Speedking - The Fist And The Laurels (collection, recorded 1995-97). Before LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy had a punk/electronica band. This is everything they recorded, including an album that was shelved until Murphy became famous. Pretty good stuff, although rarely great. Very interesting to hear what Murphy does in a different context, though.

Speedy West - Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West And Jimmy Bryant (compilation with Jimmy Bryant, 1952-56), Swingin' On The Strings: The Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant Collection, Vol. 2 (compilation with Jimmy Bryant, 1951-56), Speedy (compilation, 1950-56), West Of Hawaii (1958), Steel Guitar (1960), Guitar Spectacular (1962), and For The Last Time (with Jimmy Bryant, 1975). I covered Jimmy Bryant's solo work some years back and now I've gotten around to his partner in crime, under whose name these compilations are filed by dint of first billing. West and Bryant are utterly delightful, virtuosos both, and their take on these songs will bend your ear into unnatural shapes. Stratosphere Boogie and Swingin' belong in everyone's homes. Speedy is a collection that doesn't add much to the prior albums. West, Steel, and Spectacular are all post-Bryant, and Speedy is mining a vein more Hawaiian slack guitar than Western Swing, which is a little mellow for me. Last Time brings together an aging West and Bryant, both of whom have unfortunately slowed down quite a bit. Here they are at their peak, obviously enjoying each other's company and competition:

And one more, just because Bryant's guitar, which is, if I recall correctly, a 12-string tuned in thirds, sounds AWESOME:

Spider Bags - Shake My Head (2012) and Teenage Eyes single (2012). Kickin' garage-rock trio from Chapel Hill.

Spike Jones - The Very Worst Of Spike Jones (1944-49). Woo, this is humor for a different generation. I hate this. I mean, yes, thank you for bringing anarchic and sarcastic humor to the masses, but so much of this is weighed down by racial humor or, as in the clip below, the fact that it is utterly hilarious that a little person would try to lead a band and do impressions. Blah. Stay in the past, man.

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