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.


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