Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 44: Sleep Gunner Plays the Louvin Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1 (Sleep Gunner, 2014)

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There’s a wordless documentary film about august Dutch drummer and visual artist Han Bennink and one scene from it has stuck in my mind since I first saw it: we see a close-up of a needle dropped on a record, and as the well-worn grooves play Tommy Flanagan’s introduction to the Charlie Parker song “Relaxing at Camarillo,” the camera slowly pans—past a floorful of items including the record jacket (Flanagan’s 1957 debut as a leader, called Overseas), a pair of heavy cowbells, and what appears to be a rubber ear resting on a ping-pong paddle—to Bennink, playing along—truly swinging his ass off—with brushes upon a cardboard box.

What’s so striking to my rubber ear is not the brilliance of the playing—though brilliant playing it is, both Flanagan’s pre-recorded and Bennink’s card-boarded—nor the humor of the box under the brushes played by a grown man sitting on the floor, but rather the resonance between the two. Neither, it should be noted, is faked—Bennink is well-studied in the ways of straight-ahead jazz and a practiced absurdist—and that’s important. His sincerity and clear respect and love for the style bolsters and boosts any sense of irony with which he may deploy such stylistic considerations in different contexts.

Dutch jazz has for decades embodied this tendency toward conceptual amalgamating. The cover of Kevin Whitehead’s invaluable book on the subject, New Dutch Swing—which, appropriately, features an image of Bennink at his drum set, smoke clouds rising up from his hi-hat in which he’d started a newspaper fire—contains the equation: “Jazz + Classical Music + Absurdism = New Dutch Swing.”

This week we look at a 2014 release by the Amsterdam-based guitar duo known as Sleep Gunner, called Plays the Louvin Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, in which they swap out some elements of the New Dutch Swing equation but retain its logic. As the title suggest, the material they’ve chosen to home in on is that of the Louvin Brothers—a prolific country and gospel, guitar/mandolin close-harmony duo of the ’50s and ’60s—and laid atop and woven throughout that base are strains and strands of noise rock, conceptualist humor, “out jazz,” and more.

Like Bennink, the guitarists of Sleep Gunner—Jeroen Kimman and Mark Morse—have nothing but honest-to-goodness affection for the music that they take pride in being able to both pull off as such as well as deconstruct as wanted. (Or as needed: Kimman confesses that they were “trying to learn to play country and making up for our flaws by throwing in the noise-making weirdness we were doing anyway.” Morse echoes the sentiment when he says, “If there’s ever a comedic or ironic element, it usually comes from not being able to take our own guitar playing seriously—the comedy’s not directed at the songs, the genre, or the Louvins.”)

To be sure, these guys are no golden-leafed Nudie suit-wearing country stars, but that doesn’t stop them from playing the crap out of this music. One of the things I love most about this project is that they don’t simply play the lead-sheet versions of the songs in a so-called modern jazz style, but rather have taken the time to go deep into the bends, twists, and turns of the Louvins—to capture a feeling, rather than obscure it with a thick coat of cool, or bleach it away with abstraction. Fittingly, the pair describes their Louvin Brothers project as a “playful and plaintive attempt to break their own modern conceptualist hearts.” That said, they have clearly worked hard to get the style right.

About the song “Gonna Lay Down my Old Guitar”—the lyrics of which tell of a sick, bedridden man, alone and on the edge of death, wishing he could take his guitar with him when he goes—Kimman would say, “the arrangement had some fun ‘bending concept’ which made the skin come off my fingers. The finger-picking, which was new to us, made Mark have some serious shoulder issues.” It’s a great arrangement, theirs, featuring a final chorus that is slowed down so severely as to make one think that the first line of it is the song’s big finish, but the two lumber onward at that tempo, as if refusing to give up their old guitars, crawling all the way to the end.

The album begins a with a few seconds of string scratching, whining feedback, and fuzzy distortion—like some-sort of fucked-up transistor radio trying to tune into a station—out of which blooms a slowly strolling version of “Put Me on the Trail to Carolina,” a song by the Delmore Brothers, an early influence on the Louvins. It’s a smart tune to open the album with, particularly handling it as Sleep Gunner does, giving each verse and chorus its own feel, through orchestration and guitar effects. It might even be abstractly referred to as an overture, dipping as it does into so many sonic themes that appear through the rest of the album. The song itself is gorgeous, with a harmony line that, like harmonies on much of the Louvin Brothers’ output, is boldly inventive.

One of the Louvins’ more well-known songs, “You’re Running Wild,” is a favorite for Kimman and Morse, and was the first song they recorded under the auspices of Sleep Gunner. On this album, they kick it off with some tame, tail-chasing noodling before diving headlong into the deep boom-chick two-beat groove that underpins the off-kilter song. The two relish the harmonies and smartly just play the form once, for maximum punch. Their take ends with understated humor.

Ira and Charlie Louvin

Ira and Charlie Louvin

Ira and Charlie Louvin grew up in Alabama, working in the field, picking cotton for a taskmaster father who didn’t hesitate to whip the boys—Ira, the elder troublemaker, in particular—with a hickory stick or, as Charlie remembered, if their father wasn’t calm at the time, “with whatever was at hand. A chunk of firewood, a piece of furniture, whatever.”

They learned songs from their Mother, and she didn’t hold back. One of their favorites, taught to them before they were old enough to go out in the fields, was the exceptionally tragic “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which tells of a young, unmarried girl returning home with child to seek shelter from the biting winds on the moor. Her father turns her away, only to find her the next morning dead on his doorstep, grandchild still alive, “closely grasping his dead mother’s arm.” The man realizes what he has done and tears out his grey hair in grief. The child dies soon after, the door is overgrown with willows, and the property becomes a local legend: “there Mary died, once the gay village bride / From the wind that below across the wild moor.” The Louvins’ mother also taught them the murder ballad called “Knoxville Girl,” a morbid song about a man who beats his girlfriend to death for her roving eye. They would record both songs on their 1956 debut full-length for Capital Records, the appropriately titled Tragic Songs of Life. Two other songs on that album, “Alabama” and “Kentucky”—substantially less tragic, being rather sweet odes to states the singers long to return to—appear on Sleep Gunner’s collection.  

Of course, given that this is an instrumental record, there is no extra resonance or tension that can occur when one hears the lyrics. This is not a new thing: jazz musicians have forever been playing instrumental versions of songs. But there is something to be said for knowing what the song “says,” particularly when it is at odds with the music. I think, for example, of what a bonus it is to know that the wildly leaping melody that begins the bridge of Duke Ellington’s song “Prelude to a Kiss” is sung with the lyrics, “Though it’s just a simple melody / With nothing fancy, nothing much.” Or, more apt here, how a song like “But Not For Me” by George Gershwin, set in a major key with no sign of pressure, is set with lyrics by his brother—another older brother named Ira—that detail a depressing litany of heartache. All this to say that while listening to Sleep Gunner’s versions of Louvin Brother songs will hit you hard and satisfy you, getting into the original recordings to hear the lyrics will only add to the experience.

Actually, I should mention here, there is one instance where we get to hear the lyrics and that’s in the song “New Partner Waltz,” when Sleep Gunner strapped into vocoders to tell the quaint tale of emotional betrayal at a dance.

One of my favorites on the record, and a good place to end, is the song, “Hoping that You’re Hoping,” the lyrics of which contain the R. D. Laingianly knotted phrase, “Every breath I take I’m hoping that you’re hoping that I’m hoping you’ll return to me.” It’s on this track that Morse and Kimman let loose most fully, lengthily devolving from a bouncy and bendy overdriven romp into what as well be a haywire truck engine revving in front of your ears. The extended breakdown here is to me reminiscent of the musical “viruses” employed by the ICP Orchestra (a near fifty-year-old institution of “New Dutch Swing” co-founded by pianist and composer Misha Mengelberg and the aforementioned Han Bennink), which, as Kevin Whitehead puts it, are “booby-traps designed to mess up any piece’s structure from within.”

With Sleep Gunner, though, it may be much simpler than that. In a post from 2012, introducing what they refer to as “the latest Louvin craze,” they explain that “Our goal here is to go really uptempo for a change, maintain all the romance, and try to sound like an 8-bit old computer game, since we’re modernist conceptualists, and we found ourselves with newly bought fuzzboxes so there.”

Head over to Sleep Gunner’s Bandcamp page to get yourself a copy of Plays the Loving Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, and while you’re there, check out their two live recordings, which show off some more stretching than you hear on Vol. 1 and also introduce a few additional Louvin tunes to their book, which, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to hear on Vol. 2 some day soon.

I’m Josh Rutner and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 43: Call Me (Al Green, 1973)

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Within his autobiography, called Take Me to the River, published in 2000, Al Green reminisced about one cold morning in a rural Michigan hotel room while on tour, approaching the window, which looked out “across the empty highway to the frozen fields on the other side”:

“As I watched while the sun slowly seeped into the dark sky, like milk being poured into a bowl, I felt myself standing in the middle of some great empty place, as if the universe and everything in it had been cleared away in a circle from all around me. It was a lonely, solitary sensation, but the strange thing was, I didn’t feel the ache of a man left to himself. It was more a peaceful feeling, a kind of soothing sensation, as if I was far away from every human sorrow and strife.”

Call Me, Green’s sixth album, released in the spring of 1973, was “supposed to be about nothing more than flirtation and romance and the hot passions that spring up between a man and a woman.” In truth, Call Me is much less about hot and heavy romance per se and more about the emptiness, the solitude, the loneliness of a pining lover.

Unlike “Let’s Stay Together,” his big hit from the year before, which is about an extant couple whom the narrator is lovingly suggesting stay together forever, the songs on this album circle around unrequited love, undone love, unbegun love. We hear a man who is crying out for lovers, sometimes nostalgically engaging with exes in stiff and stilted colloquialisms (as in “Have You Been Making Out O.K.,” and the cover of Willie Nelson’s song “Funny How Time Slips Away”) and sometimes pushing, pleading, praying (as in the title track and “You Ought to Be with Me”).

The following line from “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” is indicative of the feelings expressed in this album: “It always ends up this way / Me begging you every day / A love that I cannot have / You broke my heart into half.” The love he can’t have in “Here I Am” is powerful, and even explosive—“All this love inside of me / I believe there’s going to be an explosion,” he sings—and therein, in that potential energy, lies the dramatic strength of these songs.

In Take Me to the River, Green wrote about what it took for him to shift—pressed by producer Willie Mitchell, with whom he had worked since their meeting in 1969—from his harder-edged, more “mannish,” Otis Redding-type vocal style into his signature floating falsetto, “like a little boy crying for his mama,” as Green put it, “or a grown man weak for the love of a woman. To sing like that,” he explains, “you’ve got to let something inside of you loose, give up your pride and power, and let that surrendering feeling well up inside until it overwhelms you and uses your voice to cry out with a need that can’t be filled.”

In a late-1970s interview with Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, Green acknowledged that satisfaction is not his aim and even something he avoids: “I’m afraid to become satisfied, like being afraid to fall in love; it frightens me to death. When you are satisfied, you let yourself relax, and you don’t do your best.”

With this in mind, we might view the lack of fulfillment within the songs on Call Me as at least unconsciously self-inflicted—a sort of productive self-sabotage. The lyrics in “Here I Am” go on to say, “Keeping you and loving you means / Laying all my troubles down,” and when rubbed up against his statements above, we might conjecture that Green—the persona if not the person—is strategically unwilling to accept any such state of happiness, despite his entreaties for the addressee to “come and take me.”

In an earlier, 1976 article in Ebony, also penned by Ms. Norment, Green said of his millionaire lifestyle—his “money, jewelry, cars, houses”—that “none of that stuff means anything unless you are happy. I am not really happy.” After pausing, and staring out across the lake that his eight-bedroom Memphis ranch house overlooked, he continued, “What is happiness? To understand the reasons of life itself… things beyond my control. I have been in an arena with 40,000 people, but I was the loneliest man in there.”

Which brings us to another significant theme of Call Me: that of loneliness.

The fourth track, one of my favorites on the album, is Green’s cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The song was originally released by Williams 1949 as the flip-side to the danceable but lyrically lacking “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” “I’m So Lonesome” was never the hit that Williams knew it could be when he was alive, but it did eventually get its due. The start of the fourth verse alone—“The silence of a falling star / Lights up a purple sky”—is bursting with such bold poeticism as to make the tune a classic in my book. Lyrically, it’s not a narrative so much as a set of discrete metaphorical images of nature—falling stars, dying leaves, weeping robins, and so on—which is very much in line with Green’s outlook on the outdoors. He cites his earliest influences as “the rain on the window, the wind in the corn crop, or the water lapping on the banks of the river. That,” he says, “is music to my ears… I can still remember childhood days when I’d wake up early to the birds singing in the trees and throw open the window just to catch their whistles and chirps.”

He even tweaks Williams’ lyrics in the first verse, so strong is his love for such sounds, turning the lonesome whippoorwill who “sounds too blue to fly” into a lonesome whippoorwill who “sounds too good to fly.”

Loneliness is a complex thing.

Production-wise, this album is quintessential Willie Mitchell, with Green’s lighter-than-air velvet funk afloat high above the rhythm section’s nastily tight foundation. The horn arrangements are strong and the Memphis Strings are used effectively, and for the most part are not laid on too thickly or haphazardly. Green had, by this time—along with Stevie Wonder and others—joined Marvin Gaye’s multi-layered lead vocal trend, which Gaye had pioneered (at first quite by accident) on his 1971 album, What’s Going On. The hard-left panning and boosted levels of Green’s secondary lead voice can, admittedly, sneak up on you, particularly listening in headphones. He seems on this record to still be working out the kinks of the technique for himself, often providing I-just-sang-what-you-sang redundancies rather than complementary support.

That said, there are moments where that second voice shines, either musically, as in the harmonies on the choruses of the ultra-gentle, salivatiously close-mic’d “Have You Been Making Out O.K.,” or textually, as in the commentary on the lyric in “Funny How Time Slips Away,” in which “Never know when I’ll be back in town” is flat-footedly answered with an at-first seemingly innocuous, “maybe tomorrow.” Of course, the lyrics in the latter continue with, “Remember what I told you / That in time you’re gonna pay,” so, “maybe tomorrow” suddenly doesn’t feel as downright neighborly as it did a few seconds back.

In “Funny How Time Slips Away,” as the title suggests, time speeds by, such that so long ago seems like only yesterday; and, by contrast, in the other country cover, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” nights are so long, and “time goes crawling by.” Splitting the difference is the album’s centerpiece, “Your Love is Like the Morning Sun,” wherein the warm sun shining down is ultimately in the present of the narrator’s mind. As if bolstering this idea, the drums provide a reassuringly constant tick-tock cross-stick groove as Green—as ever the ex-lover—compares his love to a summer’s day. Her lease, too, it seems, had all too short a date: love faded to gray.

It’s enough to imagine Green alone, again, in a hotel room, facing the morning sun seeping into the dark sky, whispering to himself, “I'm tired of being alone / Still in love with you / Let's stay together, together.”

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 42: Malvina Reynolds...Sings the Truth (Malvina Reynolds, 1967)

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The first judge to be recalled and replaced in the state of Wisconsin was Archie Simonson of Dane County. It was 1977, but the circumstances surrounding his recall remain all too familiar today: faced with three teenaged boys who had pleaded no-contest to the gang rape of a girl in a high school stairwell, he added to the injustice of his paltry sentences the stunning insult of blaming the victim for dressing “inappropriately.” “Are we supposed to take an impressionable person 15 or 16 years of age,” he said of the teenaged rapists, “and punish that person severely because they react to it normally?” He went off on a tear and rattled off a handful more gems, complaining that he can’t go around exposing his genitals “like [women] can the mammary glands,” pointing out the existence of women in court rooms who have the gall to not wear a bra, and that women in court and in schools wear “dresses up over the cheeks of their butts.” Rolling Stone later quoted him as saying “Whether we like it or not, women are sex objects.”

Needless to say, the story made national news, and a petition to hold a recall election was successful, with over 36,000 signatures. One person in particular who took note was Malvina Reynolds, who, by 1977, nearing her 80s, was a well-established singer-songwriter. She took it upon herself to help the cause in the way she knew best: she wrote a song, called in favors to get it produced quickly as a single, and distributed them like handbills. The sleeve of the 45 had a two-paragraph detailing of the situation (with an all-caps headline, “THE JUDGE WHO SANCTIONED RAPE”) along with the lyrics of her freshly penned song, “The Judge Said.” If you’ll indulge me, these two verses of the song will give you a pretty good idea of the cut of her jib:

The judge said, Screw ’em!
Boys, you’re only human,
They brought it on themselves
By being born a woman.
Like a mountain’s there to climb
And food’s there to be eaten,
Woman’s there to rape
To be shoved around and beaten

Now if you beat a horse or dog
Or violate a bank,
Simonson will haul you in
And throw you in the clink.
But violate a woman,
Your equal and your peer,
The judge will slap you on the wrist
And lay the blame on her.

Simonson was recalled in that special election, and, in his stead, the people of Dane County voted in Moria Mackert Krueger, Madison’s first female judge.

Reynolds was a late-comer to the world of music. Born in 1900, she was approaching fifty when she first met Pete Seeger—nearly twenty years her junior—at a California hootenanny and hit him up for advice about how she might begin to do what he was doing. In Seeger’s words, “I remember thinking, ‘Gee, she’s kinda old to get started.’ I had a lot to learn. Pretty soon she was turning out song after song after song!”

Her voice was distinctively untrained. Contemporary reviews of her albums pointed out this fact with adjectives like “primitive,” “childlike,” “unsophisticated,” and just plain “not beautiful.” She herself acknowledged the lack of polish in her voice, but of course that was no matter. She saw her music as providing a function beyond the aesthetic: she wanted to effect real change. About the song “The Judge Said,” mentioned above, Reynolds would say, “We got out this great statement, this great song. And I say it’s great because it worked.

Reynolds, above all, was interested in singing the truth. In her song, “What’s Going On Down There,” which appears on her second release, 1967’s fittingly titled Malvina Reynolds…Sings the Truth—this week’s Album of the Week—she speaks to the American political and legal system that looks to hold tightly to its power with white-knuckled fists against any sense of justice. The fix is in, she claims, with lyrics like: “They throw you in a jail / all covered with blood. / The higher-up man / won’t do you any good. / He also wears the hood.” Her airy, low-larynx’d notes—one of my favorite aspects of her voice—which appear here and there throughout this record, in this song act as a nice bit of text painting when she sings “down there.” The final verse issues marching orders to the listener: “We sing you this song / so you know what’s true / and you’ve gotta take it with you everywhere you go / because it’s up to you.”

The truth ain’t always easy to hear and Reynolds wasn’t known for being a softie. She is, after all, a singer of songs of discontent. In the thirteen songs on Sings the Truth, there are blatant or subtle references to slavery, nuclear testing, income inequality, racism, the KKK, middle-class conformism, and oh so much more. That said, sometimes even her toughest tunes are tempered with witty, gentle imagery and some are even downright funny.  

The lead-off track, for example, “The New Restaurant,” is an acerbic mocking of the misplaced standards of modern era, by way of a comparison to a brand new restaurant, where all the superficial aspects—from gleaming fixtures and delightful crockery to masterfully laid-out menus and linen napkins and mats—are impeccable, but the food is terrible. The final verse contains the stinger: that in another generation—that’s us—the clientele would altogether forget the taste of food; that so long as waitresses are charming and the décor is “symphonic,” the people will happily eat plastic. There’s a video of Reynolds performing the song on Seeger’s short-lived, mid-’60s television series called Rainbow Quest, and at its conclusion we see a shot of her in profile, breaking character and shooting Seeger a smile-eyed, toothy grin, after which Seeger lays down his guitar and lets out an “Oh, that’s too sad!”   

Reynolds was born Malvina Midler in San Francisco to immigrant parents who had joined the socialist party shortly after Reynolds’ birth. In later interviews, she referred to herself in her school years as “quiet, shy me.” That aspect of her personality is brilliantly laid bare in the hilarious song, “Quiet.” “I don’t know much about much,” she sings, “And what I don’t know I don’t say / And when I have nothing to say / I’m quiet.” But she was also a vocal activist at heart, leading protests and petitions even in high school. Note that the chorus of “Quiet” begins with the line, “When there’s occasion to holler, I’ll buy it / I can make noise with the best.”

Due to her parents’ opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I, her high school refused her her diploma. Nonetheless, she eventually found a way to enroll in UC Berkeley, and to receive, as she put it,  “all the degrees possible,” culminating in a PhD in English in 1939.  She graduated with honors straight into the tail end of the depression, and that, combined with the fact that she was slightly older than her classmates, a woman, and a Jew, contributed to her difficulty in landing a teaching job. She thus found herself tossed back in the thick of the working class movement, a movement whose message at the time she viewed as not being particularly well expressed for its intended audience to hear. Her work as a singer-songwriter would be her effort to smooth that seam between the radical movement and the People with a capital p.

If anyone is familiar with Reynolds’ work these days, it’s likely by way of her 1962 song “Little Boxes,” which was used as the theme song for the popular Showtime show Weeds. The song was written quickly, in a moving car while driving by the hills of Daly City, California on the way to a gig. If the OED is to be believed, the song stands as the earliest usage of the term “ticky-tacky,” a term meaning both the description of cheaply constructed buildings and the cheap or inferior construction material itself. It’s a great song, with a punch in its message that architectural mundanity and social mundanity go hand in hand: it’s not just the little houses that are made of ticky-tacky, but also the people who went to universities and came out all the same. They too are ticky-tacky. Seeger would cover the tune in 1963 and it resonated, even reaching number 70 on the Billboard Hot 100. Reynolds wouldn’t release her own version until Sings the Truth, four years later.

The album’s powerful black and white cover photograph was taken by the prolific Jim Marshall at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. The lines upon her face, and her at once serious and sympathetic expression, bespeaks a hard-fighting life, already well-lived. The coat she wore that day, which was bright white, as we can see in other photos, was smartly subdued in the album cover version, helping her contrasting, cotton-candy wisps of white hair to stand out. 

Reynolds throughout her career shook cages with her music, and used it like a plow to turn soil for seeds to grow, or like a saw to cut to the core. Always at the root of her sword-crossing with those she disagreed, though, with was a central tenet of love and care for a flawed world. She loved it like a fool, this world.

But if there’s one takeaway from Reynolds’ life and work, let it be that each person has great power to effect change. In the fifth track, “God Bless the Grass,” she paints truth as blades of grass: tender, easily bent, and yet able to burst forth through the cement that aims to keep it down. After a while the grass lifts up its head, “for the grass is living and the stone is dead.”

One of my favorite examples of this idea comes in Reynolds’ song “The Little Mouse,” which was written in 1976, just two years before her death, and released posthumously on the album Mama Lion. That summer, she’d noticed a report in the San Francisco Chronicle that told of a mouse, loose in the Central Clearing House of Buenos Aires, that had chewed up a computer cable, thus disabling check-clearing operations for both banks and the stock exchange within the city. Reynolds, in her late 70s, sang the following:

“Hooray for the little mouse / that fucked up the clearinghouse / and set the stock exchange in a spin / and made the bankers cry! / So much for the electronic brains that run the world of banks and airplanes. / And if one little mouse can set them all awry, / why not you and I?”

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

 

Episode 41: Fewer Moving Parts (David Bazan, 2006)

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It was early spring of 2012 and two friends and I were winding through Williamsburg toward the East River, working our way toward the apartment of a stranger. The building was one of those swanky, newly constructed shiny high-rises that had been and continue to pop up and penetrate the Brooklyn skyline, stalagmite-like. We entered, nodded to the doorman like we belonged there, got into the elevator, pushed the button labeled “PH,” and up and up we went.

The sun was setting over Manhattan as we entered the apartment, and in the far corner, beyond the forty or so mingling attendees, tucked into the semicircular crush of couches and chairs—there, setting up a floor lamp that he had seemingly brought with him, was David Bazan.

Bazan is a curious character in the world of indie rock, mainly given his past as a so-called Christian rock musician, and his present as an apostate. While his faith was true and steady and the music and lyrics were certainly not put-on, “Christian rock” was a badge that, if he wore at all, he wore partially obscured. He formed Pedro the Lion—less a band than a process, he says—in 1995 while attending a Pentecostal liberal arts college just outside of his hometown of Seattle. It’s not hard to find write-ups of Pedro the Lion’s music that are completely oblivious to the fact that the band had any ties to the Christian rock scene at all, so subtle the songs were. Heavy-handedness was never the way. At school, where this son of a Pentecostal music pastor spent a couple years studying religion and philosophy before dropping out to focus on touring, he began to shed, as he puts it, “the first, most absurd layers of his cultural belief system—namely the Pentecostal layers.”

What started turning him was a growing awareness that the Christianity he had practiced was in fact blocking the kind of ethical behavior he wanted to engage in. Over the years, to the dismay of many family, friends, and fans, that shedding would become more and more complete. For a while, it seemed that the space his jettisoned religious baggage left was being filled with alcohol. By mid-2004, Bazan’s drinking was becoming a serious problem. He ditched the Pedro the Lion moniker the following year—ending a ten-year run—and took it upon himself to cut out on his own, to “go solo,” culminating in the 2006 self-release of his debut EP under his own name—and this week’s Album of the Week—Fewer Moving Parts.

Eyeing the track list, the first things you notice about the album is that it is comprised of five songs performed in electric, full-band arrangement, and then those same five songs are performed again, in order, with just acoustic guitar and voice. In the hands of a lesser artist, this move—particularly on an album of essentially brand new songs—might fall totally flat, but Bazan has a way about his acoustic arrangements that both breathe new life into the tunes—a new perspective, not least for most via a new key—and somehow radiate with the glowing remainder of the full-band sound with minimal tools: the second iteration is haunted by the specter of the first. In this sense it’s anything but redundant.

Looking at the first song, “Selling Advertising,” as an example, the initial, full-band instance is bold and nearly fanfare-ish with its wild drum fills and pew-pewing synths, underpinning the lyrics which lay sardonically into music reviewers, saying, “You're so creative with your reviews / of what other people do / How satisfying that must be for you,” comparing the artist/critic relationship to an ancient holy war. In the B-section, the drums chill out and the guitars accompany the voice with a counter-line that is crisp and logical—something you might hear in a Beatles song. The full band version ends with another, more overt Beatles shout-out: as Bazan sings, “And if you get tired of making taste for free / you can always start a band with me / or anybody,” there is final swelling crescendo with backing-vocal “ah”s channeling the lovable Liverpudlians.

Compare this to the much more relaxed acoustic version that almost slips into existential sadness while listing the ways a click-hungry online music reviewer makes their living: “selling advertising / tracking trends / corralling demographics / and maximizing traffic,” ending in a whisper. Throughout the acoustic version—and indeed, through almost all the acoustic tracks—Bazan’s voice and guitar are doubled, making for a really full sound, but also affording him the opportunity to pare down even more, as in the ending of “Selling Advertising,” where on the final line of the song (“or anybody”), one of the voices drops, leaving just one, sounding more vulnerable than it ever might have if it were a single voice the whole time.

The third (and eighth) track, “Fewer Broken Pieces,” is an semi-ironic take on Bazan’s going solo. “I had to let some go,” he sings, “don’t think I don’t regret it / ’cause I do and I don’t / think I’m better off alone.” A compellingly mixed message occurs in that line due to the enjambed phrase “’cause I do and I don’t,” which could conceivably tie to either the phrase before or after it—either “don’t think I don’t regret it, ’cause I do and I don’t” or “’cause I do and I don’t think I’m better off alone.” The cover art, by graphic artist Zak Sally, shows Bazan, Onceler-like, with an ax shouldered, staring straight-faced, straight ahead, leaving behind him a field of mere stumps. Yes, fewer moving parts mean fewer broken pieces, but it gets complicated when you have to break off pieces to get there. The song ends, “Man we could have had a big sound / but I love to let my good friends down.”  

Something I love about Bazan songs, particularly ones on this EP, is how little they rely on traditional verses, choruses, bridges, and so on. They move as the stories move, creating their own unique forms. In addition, long stretches of lyrics, often meted out in short bursts, cover tons of ground. These lengthy sentences force you to listen to the whole of it to get the payoff.

In “Cold Beer and Cigarettes,” for example, the song builds to a peak in which the narrator, a wayward husband and father on a three-day bender, bellows at the senseless cruelness of God after witnessing a multi-car fire. To get to that moment, we hear, above a steadily building arrangement, “A car’s on fire in the parking lot / and nobody wants it to rain / but God isn’t listening / so all of the windshields glisten / The water and oil mix / causing the fire to spread / to five or six / innocent automobiles / waiting in their nearby spots / What a cruel God we’ve got!”

In Bazan’s post-Christian mode, there seems to remain in him a Job-like fist-shaking interaction with a God that likely isn’t there. But more than that, there is a pragmatism that guides his thinking. In a lovely interview with the journal Image, Bazan said the following, which really struck me, and is as good a place as any to end:

“I used to believe that justice was coming in the future, at the hand of a creator who was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. I no longer believe that. I think that justice is the responsibility of us all, now. That other view is, on the one hand, understandable as a comfort to the people who will never get justice in this life, but for those of us who have the opportunity to create justice, it’s a cop-out… It’s not just my own efforts, though it relies heavily on them; it’s how evolution continues to push forward through the offspring of people who give a shit and are taking justice seriously.”

Take a listen to Fewer Moving Parts and go hear Bazan perform when you can.

He’s still out there, doing the work.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 40: Telefone (Noname, 2016)

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By late September of this year, the number of homicides in the city of Chicago was already climbing beyond 500, which, as the New York Times reported, is “more than in Los Angeles and New York combined.” August alone saw the killing of 90 people there, making it the deadliest month the city has seen in about twenty years. Distrust of the police has only escalated as news of unarmed black life after unarmed black life being shot dead streams in.

Growing up, Chicagoan poet-turned-rapper Noname (née Fatimah Warner) turned to poetry to cope with the world around her. In 2010, as a junior in high school, she entered the Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slam. Founded by Kevin Coval, a powerful poet himself who has appeared several times on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, the competition is intended as an outlet for diverse teenage poets in the Chicago area to express themselves, break stereotypes, speak truth, and, importantly, to witness those voices they might not otherwise get to hear up close and unfiltered. To come together, to cope, to thrive.

Noname’s poem, “When Dreams Come True,” is a tale of a choked-off, misplaced American Dream—about a fallen woman who is prostituting herself to support her crack addiction. The high is the dream, or the dream substitute, or the path to the substitute dream. A piece of the poem: “I remember when her beauty was more captivating than the sunrise when it sets in the moonlight. She was more beautiful than the sunrise when it sets in the moonlight, but the moon’s light don’t shine on her anymore. For it doesn’t want to reveal the blisters and burns on her lips where the crack pipe sits.”

Noname placed third.

Over the ensuing years, she would shift from poetry to rap—going on to provide a smattering of laudable guest verses here and there, most notably for fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper on his 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap—and further develop her cool flow, her lyricism, her biting insight, the melody of her voice. And on her long-awaited and recently released debut mixtape, Telefone—this week’s Album of the Week—we hear her in full force.

For an album that was so long in the making—three years between announcement and release—Telefone is surprisingly open and airy. The production is smooth as hell but somehow it retains a homemade quality—handclaps and finger-snaps right up in your ear. Striking, off the bat, is that these tracks don’t wait for choruses to give you hooks—though those choruses hook you plenty—there are sharp and barbed melodies throughout, even within Noname’s verses. Harmonically speaking, the ten songs of Telefone lean for the most part on sturdy and solid staples of the jazz and gospel language, orchestrated thoughtfully and slickly. This reliance on “feel-good” harmonic movement that makes sense (this follows that), peppered occasionally to great effect with an unexpected twist, puts listeners at ease, heads deeply nodding and wide opening ears to what Noname has to say. She needn’t shout. In fact, a marker of Noname’s style is her laid-backness. Don’t, however, mistake it for weakness or weariness: think Billie Holiday. She says of the album that she hoped to capture the feeling of being on the phone with someone for the first time—“all its little intricate idiosyncrasies.” That intimacy and lightness stands out.

But the telephone isn’t just the facilitator of innocent awkwardness and laughter, as Noname details in the seventh track, “Casket Pretty”—its ring can be a portent of death. The sampled giggles and coos of a baby belie the tale of widespread death of young men and women in the streets her “happy city,” Chicago. “I’m afraid of the dark / Blue and the white / Badges and pistols rejoice in the night,” she says, indicting the police for an all-too-common crime. “I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring.” We’re given a moment to let the idea sink in when she says, “Too many babies in suits.” It echoes.

In the cover artwork, a stunning painting by Nikko Washington, we see death in the form of a small skull looming above a young girl—unseen by her but ever felt—and blooming flowers crowding her right side. She stares forward with wide eyes unblinking but very much alive. I got lost in those eyes today and in so doing, I eventually realized that she is not looking straight ahead, back into the viewer’s eyes, but just above, presumably checking out the skulls atop the heads of others.

And yet somehow, despite the darkness, a hope shines through Telefone. A month before the tape dropped, Noname tweeted, “Everything is Everything (my new religion).” The phrase itself—everything is everything—makes an appearance on three difference tracks. The reference, I have to imagine, is not to Donny Hathaway’s debut album of the same name from 1970, but rather to the song of the same name on Lauryn Hill’s debut album from 1989. Hill’s song is an embodiment of hope in darkness, or at very least the idea that in time, eventually, change comes—winter becomes spring.

In the summer of 2007 on the blog for the Poetry Foundation, called Harriet, another poet from Chicago, Patricia Smith, wrote a post about what Robert Frost might be able to teach “performance poets.” What she was railing against in “about 75% of the poets I’ve heard lately, well-intentioned bellowers who are masters of pretty pictures strung together or rants laced with vitriol,” is, well, enthusiasm. A certain kind of enthusiasm, which Frost, quoted from his 1930 talk, “Education by Poetry,” describes as “sunset raving. You look westward toward the sunset, or if you get up early enough, eastward toward the sunrise, and you rave. It is ohs and ahs with you and no more.”

Noname is in the clear here.

Smith goes on, in solidarity with Frost, “The idea is paramount; the idea should be the result of the poet’s eye and his intellect. The idea will guide you toward softer ways to say hard things; it will teach you the benefits of quiet, of knowing when a scream is warranted. Enthusiasm, when filtered through this solid beginning, is no longer of the ‘sunset raving’ variety. It’s not ohs and ahs at the mere appearance of the sizzling gold, the persistent heat. It’s whispering quiet thanks that the sun has chosen to rise at all, again.” 

In Noname’s debut, we get just such lush talk about the hardest of things.

Everything is everything.

America
Are you listening?

Be the receiver and let the drop of Telefone lift you up.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 39: Plexure (John Oswald, 1993)

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There's a great video of Dolly Parton performing her song "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" in 1977 on the West German television show Der Musikladen. Accompanying herself on guitar, she sings a cool and bouncy version, backed up in close harmony by the boys in her band. At the song’s conclusion, she admits, grinning, “We have another version of that same song we'd like to try a little bit of for you. Let's pretend,” she says, “that we have the record recorded on a 45-speed record, and we flip it up on 78-speed.” And off they go, performing the exact same tune in chipmunk voices sung through broad smiles, Parton’s long-nailed fingers deftly driving the tempo. They do just one verse and a chorus—after all, as expertly executed as it was, it’s intended only as a gag—and cap it off with Parton quickly saying “Thank you,” still in her sped-up voice.

I think about the folks who watched that performance at the time, about whether those passively consuming fans who, after witnessed Parton’s parlor trick, might have taken it upon themselves to “try this at home,” to experiment with this most basic form of active consumption of music: to take the music that’s given to you and “flip the switch up”—to listen at a different speed just to hear what it’s like.

In 1985 at the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto, Canadian composer and sometimes-saxophonist John Oswald presented a paper called “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” in which he commented that, for consumers of music, “passivity is still the dominant demographic,” and prescribed—in a Partonian spirit—that “an active listener might speed up a piece of music in order to perceive more clearly its macrostructure, or slow it down to hear articulation and detail more precisely.” Just a few years later, on a track called “Pretender” within his first album, titled plunderphonic, Parton’s brief musical joke would be stretched—along with the threshold recognizability—to its logical extreme. Using a version of Parton herself singing—fittingly—“The Great Pretender” as the source material, we hear, as the song goes on, the pitch of the song slowly but dramatically drop, until, as Oswald put it to Norman Igma in 1988, “Dolly experiences a sex change.” Then, toward the end, the original, perky Parton returns to duet with her inverse-self.

plunderphonic came out in 1989—the same year, as it happens, as De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, another album of extreme appropriation. Unlike Three Feet High and Rising, however, in an effort to avoid litigation, plunderphonic was never made available for sale; it was instead freely distributed to radio stations, libraries, critics, and musicians. Despite these steps taken, Oswald’s manipulation on the album of Michael Jackson’s song “Bad”—and, surely, who are we kidding, the cover art, depicting Jackson’s head atop the body of a nude white woman—irked Jackson’s lawyers (a.k.a, “prudes in the Recording Industry”) enough to force Oswald to cease distributing the disc, and destroy any remaining copies.   

Which brings us to 1993, when Oswald, commissioned by John Zorn, released his most extreme plunderphonic project to date—his “most dense and crushing heavy assemblage,” the album’s press release states—and this week’s Album of the Week: Plexure.

The EP clocks in at nineteen minutes and nineteen seconds, and while diligently divided into twelve “movements” ( marked off by tracks with titles like “Urge,” “Blur,” “Zoom,” “Cyfer,” “Worse, “Temperature,” and “Massive” ) and twenty-one “submovements” (with titles like “Suck,” “Rip,” “Slice,” “Blink,” “Wow,” “Hazzard,” and “Tremendous”), it is intended to be played through in its entirety, underpinned as it is by an “underlying morph” that moves from the very slow to the very fast indeed—from 47 beats per minute to 384+. The beat, as such, is one of the things Oswald leans on in offering a foothold to those for whom such music may not an easy climb be. “Tapping your foot to Plexure is a bit of an adventure,” Oswald confesses, “but it can be done.”

For a plunderphone to be a plunderphone and not simply a sample, its source must remain recognizable in spite of any transformation. “The plundering has to be blatant,” Oswald says. But the threshold of recognizability opens up a beautiful can of worms, particularly when the samples to be recognized are seconds-long or less, and scrunched up tight against thousands of other equally potentially recognizable snippets. A snatch of bass line here, a snippet of snare there; peeks of vocal shouts and coos—I know I’ve heard that before. Prince and Huey Lewis and the News. Nirvana and Paula Abdul. The Eurhythmics and U2. Peter Gabriel and the Beastie Boys. Michael Jackson and Michael Bolton. Bombarded with such a disorienting barrage of material, so quickly and thickly, one might be unable to finger specific sources, but will most certainly sense waves a familiarity. And rightly so. The source materials Oswald used for Plexure include chart-toppers on down in Western popular music from 1982 to 1992, which is tantamount to the entirety of the first decade of the “compact disc era.”

The use of recognizable material on Plexure, much like its focus on a pulsing beat, can also help ease in the listener who may not already have a knowledge of or a taste for styles outside of the mainstream—it’s an effective way to bridge the gap between the avant-garde techniques of the twentieth-century with pop music.

Make no mistake, though: Plexure—which is a word meaning “an interweaving”—is unrelenting. It is so tightly packed with moment-to-moment shifts that the closest thing to respite we get is the varied pseudo-looping of material for just about thirty seconds on the Madonna-infused ninth movement, “Mad Mod” before we are knocked over the head once again with a dizzying barrage of familiar sounds.

The album’s eleventh and final movement, called “Velocity” (which includes the final two sub-movements, “Tremendous” and “Tremulous”) takes what is already an idea taken to its radical conclusion to its radical conclusion, concluding as it does with rushing flood of millisecond-long electroquotations—the sound of a decade, flashing before your ears.

It’s true that while, generally speaking, cassette and even CD mix tapes are a thing of the past, we’ve regained some strides from an architectural perspective at least—what with playlists on Spotify and such—in the sense that we can control which tracks we hear and can hop from song to song without worrying about the remainders of albums, but overall we’re not that different from our 1985 counterparts in how with interact with the music itself.

I hope you’ll find twenty minutes to sit with John Oswald’s Plexure in its entirety. It’ll be a work-out for many, but a manageable one, and one well worth it. And at very least, I encourage you to find a way to free your own consumption of music from the binds of exclusively passive listening. Make a mix for yourself or someone else. Download a free audio editing platform like Audacity and futz around with your favorite music for a while. If in doubt, take Dolly Parton’s advice, and just see what happens when you flip the switch up from 45 to 78.  

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 38: The Art of the Theremin (Clara Rockmore, 1977)

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In December 1968, a children’s opera premiered in Hamburg, Germany called Help, Help, The Globolinks! In it, the composer and lyricist, Gian Carlo Menotti allegorizes his get-off-my-lawn-you-kids-with-your-rock-’n’-roll-and-hula-hoops anxieties about the shrouding of melodic, old-fashioned music by what he saw as the dark clouds of electronic and computer music rolling in. The opera’s plot is simple enough: Squishy and squiggly monsters from outer-space—the titular Globolinks—have landed on earth and are turning humanity into hunks of angular metal as they bleep-bloop along. While traditional methods of warfare—tanks, cannons, guns—fail against the comically horrible creatures, it is discovered that the only sure way to prevail against them is via music. You know, proper music. Our heroine appears in the form of a young schoolgirl named Emily whose practiced, controlled, and melodious violin playing leads the charge toward scattering and finally reversing the alien threat.

We might reimagine this opera with Clara Rockmore as the heroine, except, rather than using an acoustic instrument like the violin to repel the creatures, she instead tames the great and powerful theremin into doing her bidding, drawing from it—in essence, through drawing with her hands about it—not the “spooky noises” of horror films and thrillers, but great masterworks of the past, replete with “humanistic” vibrato. Those Globolinks wouldn’t know what hit ’em.

Rockmore herself, like young Emily in Menotti’s opera, began her music career as a violinist. She was a prodigy, in fact. But after developing an unbearable pain in her bow arm from, as she tells it, practicing the hell out of the Beethoven Concerto in the weeks and months following the death of her mother, she eventually needed to hang the instrument up. But the music she loved remained in her head and ears and all she needed was a mode of expressing it.

Enter the enigmatic Russian electrical engineer, inventor, and cellist Lev Sergeyevich Termen—anglicized as Léon Theremin—who, in 1918, designed the first version of what would eventually become known as, simply, the theremin, a musical instrument that could be played without being touched.

Theremin gained a private audience for his new instrument with Vladimir Lenin at the Kremlin in 1922, performing for him, among other things, Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” a gliding and shimmering piece originally written for cello—a piece which Rockmore too, perhaps as an homage to Theremin, would perform throughout her career and eventually record on 1977’s The Art of the Theremin, the only album she released in her lifetime, and this week’s Album of the Week.

Theremin was sent by Joseph Stalin to the US in 1927 on a temporary visa, to “demonstrate inventions” and, at the same time—so the story goes—to relay any secrets of American technologies back to the motherland. A real live Soviet spy, he was! The details of his eventual departure remain a bit hazy, but after ten years living on a perpetually extended six-month visa, Professor Theremin was mysteriously spirited away to a prison camp in Russia to invent surveillance devices for the government, a time which produced at very least a device still very much in use today: the wireless bug. 

The theremin, visually speaking, consists of a cabinet—though modern, transistorized versions are more like a sleek slab of wood—with a horizontal antenna jutting out to the left to regulate volume—the closer the hand, the quieter the output—and a vertical antenna shooting upward to regulate pitch—the closer the hand, the higher the tone.

When Theremin and Rockmore, Russian immigrants both, had met early on to discuss his instrument, he, realizing she was a violinist, offered to switch the placement of the antennas since she was used to producing vibrato with her left hand, rather than the right. But she, full of youthful enthusiasm and, let’s be honest, crushing hard on the svelte, lab-coated professor, insisted that she learn the instrument as it was invented. What Rockmore did eventually take issue with was the slow volume response in the left hand—“molasses,” she called it, “you couldn’t shake it off”—and the limited range of her 1929 RCA model, both of which Theremin was happy to rectify with a custom cabinet made especially for her.

The sales brochure for the RCA version touted “AN ABSOLUTELY NEW UNIQUE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT ANYONE CAN PLAY,” and it’s certainly true that it is very easy to produce a sound—the same way anyone can make sounds on a piano, or the drums, or harp; all one needs is a working limb or two—but to control it, to make music in the traditional sense, proved exceedingly difficult and the general public certainly wasn’t willing to put in the hours. And because of this, most players simply took the sweeping, gestural portamenti and wobbling vibrato they were able to pull from the strange antenna’d cabinet as a defining characteristics of the instrument.  

For Rockmore, however, the instrument was both theoretically and practically no less expressive or nimble than a violin or a voice, particularly in the hands of one with her ear and her technique—“aerial fingering,” she called her ability to articulate intervallic passages—and she would make her mark playing romantic works from the classical repertoire—works that are relatively slow-paced, broad and emotional, and where occasional expressive slidings from one pitch to another are natural and welcome. The lead-off track of the record is one that shines a light on the vocal quality of the Theremin. “Vocalise” was written by Rachmaninoff to be sung without words, on the vowel of the singer’s choice. Rockmore’s version is lovely, dynamic—singing, even.

Throughout The Art of the Theremin, Rockmore is gorgeously accompanied by her older sister, Nadia Reisenberg on piano. The two lead the listener down a path well-trodden, to be sure, but no less beautiful for it. Both pour their souls into squeezing powerful harmonies and aching melodies out of their respective instruments.

A favorite of mine on the record is the second track, Rachmaninoff’s “The Songs of Grusia,” a song originally composed for tenor voice and piano based on a poem by Pushkin. In the English version, the lyrics tell of a man imploring a Circassian maiden not to sing the old songs of Grusia—Grusia being the country of Georgia—because they flood his mind with otherwise-repressed memories of his long-lost beloved. The piano accompaniment is brutally beautiful here, descending and descending as we picture the man’s heart sinking, as his memories return one by one.

When we first meet Clara Rockmore in the opening scene of the 1993 documentary called Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, she is gently admonishing the camera man for standing too near, explaining, “Nobody can stand anywhere near me, because then I can’t tune or do anything. That’s a crazy instrument; it’s not your fault.”

Since the time of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, the Globolinks of electronic music have returned and more or less set up shop for good, but, like most tales of immigration, the new is never as nefarious as detractors claimed out of fear, and, importantly, the more we learn about and from the other, the better off we all become.

Hear, hear.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 37: Masterpiece (Big Thief, 2016)

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Years ago I saw an old episode of the 1983 BBC television series called Fun to Imagine in which theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, sitting in a wing chair in his California home, takes a crack at explaining how fire works to a lay audience. He describes, in his thick Queens, New York accent, how the carbon that makes up the wood of the tree came from the air and how that carbon is pined for by the oxygen in that same air, but to connect again requires a boost of speed via heat, and so on. But the part that knocked me out and stayed with me was how he described what’s happening when you put “tree substance” in a fire: “The light and heat that’s coming out,” he said, “that’s the light and heat of the sun that went in. So it’s sort of ‘stored sun’ that’s comin’ out when you burn it, a log.”

In the title track of Big Thief’s 2016 debut album, Masterpiece, lead singer and songwriter Adrianne Lenker sings to a loved one on a hospital bed, “Old stars filling up my throat / you gave ‘em to me when I was born, now they’re coming out.” I can’t help but think of a Feynman’s “stored sun” every time I hear that line. Sometimes it just takes the emotional heat of loss to loosen the stars from one’s throat.

While Big Thief, now rounded out by drummer James Krivchenia—who joined up on the drums after engineering Masterpiece—is a solid and tight-knit unit, the root of the project lies in the pairing of Lenker and lead guitarist and back-up vocalist Buck Meek. The two—who met and kindled a working friendship the first day Lenker moved to New York—have for years been writing and performing music as a duo, releasing two acoustic albums in the spring of 2014 called a-sides and b-sides, respectively.

To steal an idea from Lenker’s song “New York City”—a lovely, old-fashioned ditty that appears on b-sides—she is the Blossom Dearie to Meek’s Buster Keaton. It’s an spot-on comparison, and one I wouldn’t have so blatantly ripped off except I literally couldn’t best it. Both Dearie and Keaton had about their art a forward-facing presentation that veiled the deeper levels of their talents, if not their souls: Dearie, a sharp-witted, heart-rending vocal powerhouse packed inside a light-touch, near-saccharine delivery; Keaton a world-class athlete and comedic artist enveloped in a shroud of the hapless tramp. Offhanded exactitude is a particularly dramatic and exciting way of messaging expertise. 

Lenker for her part parries in her songs emotional blow after emotional blow with airy composure—little throwaway whips of voice tossed upward like magnets hit their targets. See, for example, the wide-leaping verses on “Vegas.” Meek, Keaton-like in his solos, wanders around plucking crunchy extensions from the air and wobbly bending low—see his feature in “Real Love”—but when the two-ton façade of the building finally tips and falls as Lenker’s vocal returns, he has somehow managed to get himself to exactly where he needs to be—of course he did—coolly stepping out of the window frame and walking off as if nothing happened.

Lyrically speaking, no punches are pulled on this album, and thank goodness. Lenker is a poet of the highest order, moving us alternately by way of opaquely evocative distance—love is “a gentle thing,” “thicker than a velvet ring,” for instance—and a stark and naked matter-of-factitude—“love is a cold infection alright,” and “real love is a heart attack.” This album, and indeed all of Lenker’s available output that I was able to find, is rife with gorgeous turns-of-phrase that, in the words of one such phrase, “catch your distraction,” pulling your ears right up close to the speakers to take it all in.

The music on the album is, to put it plainly, very very good. Startlingly so, when taken as a whole. Masterpiece may not a capital-M masterpiece be, but it most certainly is a collection of masterfully constructed, and powerfully presented songs, each with its own scope and vantage point. Track after track after track of burning catharsis. We’re drawn from scene to scene by the ears and dared to keep them open as tales of vicious arguments, domestic violence, mental health melancholy, loves lost, parental abandonment, and more play out in full-color. Of course, there is another side to the emotional on this record, but it’s not happiness per se. More of a softness. Still on the edge of weeping, but tender.

There is an element of lo-fi sound—particularly in the form of field recordings—peppering the otherwise pristinely recorded album, which has received short shrift by many reviewers, baffling them. I myself find them to be incredibly moving pieces of tape, and the perspective shifts alone deepen the experience of listening. There is the recording that appends the fifth track—called “Interstate”—of little Matteo Spaccarelli sing-speaking, “I like a car, I like a truck”—turning the words over and getting a feel for them, clearly elated at the content; but for me, it’s the bird sounds that appear at the end of the penultimate track, “Randy,” that really get me. “There are blue jays all in bloom / all along the cement floor,” Lenker sings. “You don’t know me but you know my name / will you say it till the light is gone?” Then the buzz of her amp rings out and cross-fades into a recording of song birds and I’m there. It goes for 30 seconds but I could have gotten lost in that recording for hours. More than the birds themselves, it’s the butting-up of spaces that brings out in each that which might otherwise go unnoticed or underappreciated.

In a sense, this idea is used as a framing device at the very start of the record, where the first thing we hear is a wave of tape hiss and Lenker singing “Little Arrow,” a song which, according to Meek, she’d written in the middle of the night during the recording sessions, while the rest of the band slept, and, he says, “recorded it on a cheap tape player the moment she finished writing it.”

“Is it, could it, was it dreaming?”

The transition from the dusty “Little Arrow” to the cleanly recorded title track which follows is stunning and effective. Meek says that the band considered trying to record “Little Arrow” as a group, but in the end there was something so pure about that first version, “like a birth,” he said, that it made sense to leave it be, and even open the album with it.

Masterpiece is a thrilling debut, and one whose music and lyrics are deep enough to warrant many repeated listenings. There is, within Big Thief, a fire burning, and their stars are only beginning to come out.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 36: ¡Olé Tormé!: Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May (Mel Tormé, 1959)

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“Have you ever been embarrassed / when you’re in a smart café / when they play that Latin tempo / is your dancing quite passé?”

Sure, we’ve all been there. It’s the worst.

Luckily, while Madam La Zonga’s Main Street dance studio has surely long since been converted into luxury apartments, we have the bullishly powerful yet playfully mano a mano recorded collaboration between El Sr. Mel Tormé y El Sr. Billy May—1959’s ¡Olé Tormé!  Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May—to guide our ears toward what was hip in the late 1950s with regard to Latin-tinged jazz. It’s less “bringing out the Latin in you”—as those six lessons from Madam La Zonga advertised—and more a gentle misting of yourself with a commercial and highly polished version of the style.

I say “the” style, but in fact May and Tormé for this album chose a collection of songs of or—let’s be honest, more often than not—at very least name-checking Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.

The album’s cover photograph shows Tormé standing proudly in a full-on torero getup, holding the requisite roseate flag—better than a fruit-hat, I suppose—and May, ever the cut-up, sitting on the ground, bedecked with sombrero and Mexican blanket, scowling at the camera with his hands in the “Hey, what gives?” position.

From the opening, old-time rock-and-roll groove on “Malagueña” (a.k.a. “At the Crossroads”), it’s clear that there is more to this album than exotic parody. And when the big band swings, it swings like hell, and when the brass section rips forth its joyous mambo splats, it does so with verve and heart. Say what you will about the very real potential for and existence of the problematic in a project such as this—you can’t say May and Tormé don’t give it their all.

While there is just plain no getting around the fact that the “Latin” elements that grace this record are almost entirely rooted in the gaze of an outsider charmed by an exotic otherness, for May, at least it’s not his first rodeo. In the late ’40s, for example, May was tasked by Capitol Records to provide original music for a 3-disc set of 10-inch records featuring child-star Margaret O’Brien called Let’s Fly to Mexico: A Travelog for Children. Described briefly, in its stunted, space-saving manner, in a March 1948 issue of Billboard magazine—then called “The Billboard”—the project “relates story of [O’Brien’s] Mexican vacation in interesting, appealing fashion. Starting with plane trip to the land south of the border, Margaret leads young listeners around the fascinating country, acting role of Mexican child as well as herself.” (As an aside, there was neat feature at the end of these old The Billboard snippets that gauged how the album might fare in jukeboxes and in the hand disc-jockeys, respectively: “Jukes and Jocks.” For those keeping score at home, Let’s Fly to Mexico is “not suitable” for jukeboxes, but “great for recorded kiddie shows.”)

A more contemporary example comes in the form of May’s first collaboration with Frank Sinatra entitled Come Fly with Me—which was its own musical travelogue of sorts—released in 1958, just a year before ¡Olé Tormé!

When Sinatra came to Capitol Records in 1953—May was, at the time, dabbling with leading a road band—his first sessions included a cover of a May song called “Lean Baby” as well as Nelson Riddle’s unabashedly May-ish arrangement—not least by way of its soupy, “slurping” saxophones—of “South of the Border.” (As it happens, that Riddle arrangement would eventually find an appropriate home as a bonus track in the late-’90s CD re-release of the aforementioned Come Fly with Me.)

In fact, speaking of “South of the Border,” May’s arrangement for Tormé included a brief and comic detour (before a final feel-good modulation) into the well-known “Mexican Hat Dance”—a song that May had arranged some years earlier for Woody Herman’s orchestra under the title “Mexican Hat Trick”—complete with tongue-in-cheek lyrics describing a run-in with his flame’s husband, who threatens to rearrange the narrator’s “face-o” but for one peso.

With a lesser arranger behind the pen, many of the songs on ¡Olé Tormé! could have easily slipped down the series of pegs into tepid and edgeless lounge music. But with May scoring, even the most lightweight songs are brimming with effervescent wit and vitality.

One of my favorites on this record is an Alberto Domínguez song called “Frenesí,” which, aside from being a hit for Artie Shaw in 1940, saw great cover versions from artists as diverse as saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Ray Charles, and Pérez Prado, a Cuban bandleader dubbed “The King of Mambo.” (Incidentally, Prado would, nearly a decade after ¡Olé Tormé!, release a great record called, simply, Latino, which featured not only “Frenesí,” but also two other songs taken on by May and Tormé on their collaboration, namely “Perfidia” and “Adios.”) Despite the title, Tormé and May provide a most unfrenzied reading of the song, and along with some fun side-slipping modulations toward the end, the version shows off Tormé incredible technique, twirling ornaments with aplomb.

The 1950s was, so to speak, a period of import for Cuban music in the US. (I Love Lucy, which debuted in 1951, was insanely popular, and thus the primary source of many Americans’ knowledge of Cuba and its music.) In 1954, Down Beat magazine reported that “almost all dance halls and night clubs now require its band to have at least some mambos in their books.” The cha-cha-chá arrived on American shores soon after. Don’t be fooled, of course. This music that was unfurling from the hi-fis of Johnny and Jane 50sAmerica was hardly anything that could be described as authentic. This fact alone, though, isn’t entirely disheartening—as ¡Ole Tormé! shows, drawing wispy strains up from the south and gently wrapping them around an energetic big band can really be a kick. But the movement—it should go without saying—did have its share of cultural side-effects.

Writer Louis A. Pérez, in an essay within the 2003 book Inside Cuba: The History, Culture, and Politics of an Outlaw Nation, lamented the Cuban composers and musicians in the ’50s struggling to compete in the market for commercialized rhumba, mambo, and cha-cha-chá: “Simply put,” he wrote, “they could not produce credible adulterations such as ‘Papa Loves Mambo’ and the ‘Davey Crockett Mambo.’ In the process, much creative energy went into the development of execrable material, little of which succeeded but had the net effect of subverting the authenticity of the genre.” There is something about that turn of phrase that Pérez uses—“credible adulterations,” the idea that artists felt forced to try on the kitsch that they themselves inspired—that just breaks my heart.

¡Olé Tormé! for sure has its share of questionable cultural appropriation and lyrical issues, particularly listened to with 2016 ears—I immediately think, for example, of the line in “Six Lessons from Madam La Zongo that goes, “When the madam starts to squawk / that’s her Latin double-talk”—but, that said, does this album sound fantastic? Hell yes it does. It’s quintessential Billy May—bringing beautiful, brash, subtle, witty, grin-inducing big band arrangements—a crazy-solid band packed with first-rate west-coast players and, of course, Mel Tormé, at the peak of his punch.

Check it out.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 35: Birthright (James Blood Ulmer, 2005)

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James Blood Ulmer’s 2005 solo release, Birthright, is an album best listened to alone in the dark, preferably at night. It is an exploratory pawing about in the world of the blues, using, to loosen the stone, the harmolodic tools forged by saxophonist Ornette Coleman, with whom Ulmer spent the majority of the 1970s studying and working.   

While it seems after listening only natural that Ulmer would have recorded an album of blues, in fact his strict upbringing in rural St Matthews, South Carolina would draw a firm line between music for the church and blues music. Ulmer admitted to not knowing much about blues music before the guitarist and producer Vernon Reid suggested they collaborate on some projects that placed the devil’s music front and center, but of course the human element had long been in place: “A guy from the south ain’t got to play blues,” Ulmer would say, “because there’s blue shit all over that bad boy. You’re living the blues.”

Ulmer was reluctant, but Reid was insistent, helpfully pointing out the prevalent undercurrent of the blues beneath Ulmer’s beloved harmolodic so-called “free” jazz that he’d used for so long as his preferred mode of expression.

In a Down Beat interview published in 1983, Coleman defined harmolodics this way:

“Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group. Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas.”

It’s this freedom to play with harmonies, rhythms, phrase lengths, and so on, that ties harmolodics to the blues singers of the past. Playing by oneself helped to facilitate this freedom in a very real way—the twelve-bar blues is myth.

The lead-off track, “Take My Music Back to the Church,” is Ulmer’s way of facing head-on the stand-off between the church and the blues. He elevates the blues art form, sanctifies it, and claims that it is—or was, at least—misunderstood, singing: “Some people think it’s the song of the devil / but it’s the soul of the man for sure.”

He found a connection between the blues and church music not only in their respective ties to history, but in their single-mindedness toward a subject, which can lead you to a higher plane: “When you’re singing in church,” Ulmer says, “you’re not singing about nothing except God. So when you’re singing blues you can get a similar feeling—that you’re singing about something that’s not about you.”

From the start of “Take My Music Back to the Church,” we are washed-over by the open-fifth drone of Ulmer’s guitar—a favorite device of his uses to push his playing to new harmolodic heights while still feeling rooted “in key.” His novel open-tuning, consisting of four strings tuned to the same note complemented by a pair of structural fifths interleaved—a “harmolodic tuning,” in the words of a surprised Coleman upon first witnessing it—was literally dreamed up after being frustrated by Coleman’s drill-sergeant practice regimen where Ulmer would play chords for hours on end. 

Sprinkled among the dark and deep and deeply original blues tunes on the record are a few bright and sparkling stunners, namely “Where Did All the Girls Come From,” which was originally released on his 1981 record called Free Lancing in full band format replete with back-up singers, and “Geechee Joe,” an oral history of sorts, telling the true story of his grandfather, a man who had grown up in the insolated Gullah/Geechee culture of the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia. Joe had moved up to Pittsburgh, never working a job where he wasn’t the boss, for, as Ulmer’s song tells us, “he didn’t want to work for the white man.” 

A favorite of mine is track five, “White Man’s Jail,” which is as close to a stereotypical blues form as we get on the record, but the lyrics—muffled and mumbled though they may be—combined with the patient and fluid strolling tempo, and Ulmer’s fluttering voice, make “White Man’s Jail” anything but pat. He takes one chorus of liberty to feature a guitar solo, but that’s it: one chorus. Talking of blues players who know what they’re doing, he says they “don’t take fifteen choruses, they play the song. If the song’s about a chicken, you don’t have the mule in there.”

After the album’s finale, a haunting and take-no-prisoners song called “Devil’s Got to Burn,” during which we hear Ulmer’s creepily devilish cackling, we are treated, after just over a minute of silence, to a coda in the form of a “hidden bonus track”—that vestige novelty that worked so well for CDs but sadly falls totally flat with the spoiler-filled scrubber bars of digital music interfaces—featuring a three-and-a-half-minute solo flute improvisation. It’s an unexpectedly light but welcome conclusion to a most-heavy record.

Do yourself a favor and wait until the sun goes down, turn off all the lights, put on Birthright, and turn it up.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 34: Red Headed Stranger (Willie Nelson, 1975)

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“I guess I was trying to figure out how a man could do something as crazy as that,” Willie Nelson said in a 1992 interview. The “that” Nelson is referring to is the killing of a woman for reaching out to touch—supposedly with the intention to steal—a man’s horse. The song in which these events are relayed—“Red Headed Stranger”—does give reasons that alone could provide a logical, if still indefensible, justification: the bay pony he leads behind him belonged to his lost wife, who “lay asleep on the hillside”—that is, dead. Because of that, the bay means more to him than life; and he is wild in his sorrow.

OK, so a man’s wife is dead, and in his grief he protects her horse as a totem, to the point of killing anyone who would dare lay a hand on it. That’s the basic idea of the original song, but Nelson, egged on by his wife—who suggested his first record for Columbia Records be a concept album—saw something else in the man’s murderous action beyond grief: guilt.

And so, with “Red Headed Stranger” as the textual kernel, Nelson built a world for the song’s anti-hero, before and after the events in the song proper. We learn the man is a preacher, married, of course, but he’s been cuckolded and left alone. The shock ages him, and, as we learn in the Ecclesiastes-laced song that frames the record and checks in from time to time, “Time of the Preacher,” the time for preaching and lessons is over. The wild sorrow in the original song takes root here as he cries like a baby and screams like a panther. He sets off on his stallion—her dancing bay pony presumably in tow—to track his wife and her lover and restore his dignity. (Or so he believes.)

After a dozen records released on the RCA label in the '60s and early '70s, Nelson signed on to Atlantic Records in 1973 and recorded two albums: Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, another concept album, like Red Headed Stranger. But Atlantic soon shuttered its country music division, leaving Nelson without a label. He’d already grown disenchanted with the ho-hum Nashville sound—the overfull production with strings and back-up singers aplenty—and the unfortunate incident of his Nashville house burning down had provided some cover to escape that scene and relocate to his home state of Texas. Nelson was a hot song-writing commodity at the time—he’d had a huge jukebox mega-hit with Patsy Cline’s version of his song “Crazy”—so he was able to strike an artistically advantageous contract with Columbia, which afforded him complete creative control—something that would become necessary when Nelson finished the record and it was first played for management. Bruce Lundvall, president of Columbia Records at the time, had proposed sweetening the thing up to give it that Nashville glow—in fact, he’d assumed at first listen it was merely a demo, so spare was the orchestration. But Waylon Jennings, Nelson’s friend who happened to be in the office with their shared manager, hopped up on Lundvall’s desk—so the story goes, anyway—and called him a “tin-eared tone-deaf son of a bitch,” who clearly didn’t get what Nelson was going for with the album. When the record went gold within a year, Lundvall supposedly sent Jennings a gold record with a note that read, “This is from that tin-eared tone-deaf son of a bitch. You were right. Here’s your album.” Red Headed Stranger would go on to become the first million-selling country album ever.

The fourth track, a medley, sutures an original song, “Blue Rock Montana”—which, in just over a minute, describes the tracking and killing of the stranger’s wife and her lover in a local tavern—to a brief iteration of the title track.

In so doing, Nelson smooths the seams between the preexisting and the new, sowing narrative seeds that will come to bloom in the B side of the record. For example, there are poetic—if gruesome—parallels between “Blue Rock Montana” and the flipside’s opener, “Denver,” which—again very briefly, just under a minute—details the stranger’s sauntering into the Colorado city of light, and spying a woman who might absolve him. Both events, the double homicide in Blue Rock and the meet-cute in Denver, take place in “a tavern in town in a quiet little out of the way place.” In Denver, “they smiled at each other as he walked through the door, and they danced with their smiles on their faces / and they danced with a smile on their face.” In Blue Rock, they—the couple that proved his wife’s infidelity—smiled at each other when he walked through the door,” and—owing to the speed of the Red Head’s draw, “they died with their smiles on their faces / they died with a smile on their face.” The songs are nearly identical in structure, harmony, and instrumentation—save the added piano in “Denver”—and it’s an incredibly effective move. Similarly, the framing device of the song “Time of the Preacher” is powerful every time it returns. The story moves forward with a familiar narrator at the helm.

“Denver” leads directly into a pair of instrumental numbers, during which we the listener imagine the red-headed stranger dancing with this new stranger—both smiling—in the out of the way tavern. First a waltz: the very popular “Over the Waves”—believe me, you’ve heard it and would recognize it—followed by a solid version of the up-tempo stomper “Down Yonder,” featuring Nelson’s sister Bobbie on piano.

After they’ve danced their smiles off, the stranger asks the woman—by way of a cover of a tender Jeannie Seely song released in 1973—if he can sleep in her arms. Here, four-fifths of the way through the tracks, we feel most powerfully the taut pull of the narrative Nelson has established against that of a preexisting cover: the narrator of “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” which of course we hear to be the voice of the stranger—a man who, remember, thus far has killed two women on his journey—gently tells his potential lover, “I assure I’ll do you no wrong,” and, “Don’t know why but the one I love left me.” In this psychologically complex dissonance, both the cover and the grand narrative are imbued with deeper, subtler meanings. Even the perspective shift from Nelson’s originals’ troubadour-like, third-person relating of story to many of the covers’ first-person POV lends a healthy dose of emotional depth to the record.

In the end, with the song “Hands on the Wheel,” the stranger and, presumably, the Denver woman seem to have settled down and had a child—he saw himself in her, and thus found a way home.

So what lessons can we learn from Red Headed Stranger? Well, practically speaking, stay the hell out of the path of ragin’ black stallions, and don’t lay a hand on a stranger’s bay pony. They’re probably not well. Also, if someone is wild in their sorrow, it’s probably best to wait it out until the morning—maybe they’ll ride on. But perhaps most importantly, if Willie Nelson says the record’s done, the record’s done.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 33: In My Room (Jacob Collier, 2016)

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By the time we reach the end of the first track of Jacob Collier’s debut solo record, In My Room, we’re left a bit dizzied. In the four and a half minute track, called “Woke Up Today,” we hear playfully punchy and tight synth hits—shades of bands like KNOWER and Dirty Loops abound—singable melodies laid atop ever-changing reharms and interlocking rhythmic grooves, a melodica solo that would force any jazz nerd’s jaw to floor, nods to Brazilian music, dense multi-voice a cappella, and tons more—I’m pretty sure I saw the kitchen sink flying by at one point.

I can imagine an past version of me—one I’m not proud of—hearing this first track and thinking to myself, jealous and embarrassed in my defensiveness, “OK OK, the kids got chops”—did I mention he is playing every instrument on the record and produced the damn thing himself?—“But there’s so much going on! It’s showy! Bet he couldn’t play a ballad…” Blah blah blah.

Collier is young—21 at the time of In My Room’s release—but he’s been soaking in and, importantly, soaking in music for his entire life, and, you know, he’s pretty freaking great at it. Oh, and if playing ballads would’ve satisfied ol’ petulant past me, I’d’ve only needed to stick around for track two, an incredibly patient and funky and sensitive arrangement of Brian Wilson’s song “In My Room.”

In fact, the album as a whole has a maxamilist touch to it—everything in moderation, even excess—which is interesting given the road to grace Collier chose for recording the thing: holed up in his music room at home; the medieval via negativa of the monk’s cell and the hermit’s cave. Of course, his cave had tens and tens of instruments lining the walls and the floors, an internet connection, and a mother on the other side of the door encouraging him to come for a bite every now and then so he doesn’t starve.

Writer John Barth, another maximalist, would often recall an anecdote in which his friend and colleague in the so-called “postmodern,” Donald Barthelme, visited a seminar Barth was teaching, and a student asked Barthelme how she and her seminar-mates might improve as writers:

"Well, for one thing," Barthelme answered dryly, "you might try reading all of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics up through last semester. That might help." And when the young woman gently pushed back, noting that Barth had already advised them to read all of literature, from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom up through last semester, "That, too," he replied. "You're probably wasting your time on stuff like eating and sleeping. Cease that, and go read everything."

Collier—a British singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, percussionist, etc., etc., etc., etc.—in a way, lived that Barthelmaniacal advice. Recalling his two years in the jazz piano program at the Royal Academy of Music, Collier says, “Every day I’d listen to an album on the way in and on the way home. That’s like 1,500 albums. I just kind of drank them in. From pop music to classical stuff and music from India and Africa.”

When asked in another interview if he could remember the first album he ever bought with his own money, he pegged it as Stevie Wonder’s 1972 record Talking Book, which, as it happens, contains on it a song that Collier covers wonderfully in his record—the song “You and I.”

Collier made a name for himself posting on YouTube six-part singing-head videos featuring a cappella arrangements of songs like Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Over the next few years he would start biting off and chewing more and more in his videos, arranging for a multitude of instruments, and editing them to show you bits of vid for everything that’s going on as it happens.

Those roots in a cappella and reharm are clear in the aforementioned arrangement of “You and I” as well as the hard-to-deny-despite-every-urge-to-do-so arrangement of the "Flintstones" theme song. The song has been an unfortunately aren’t-we-clever addition to the jazz world for decades now—I remember playing a big band arrangement by trombonist John Fedchock at a high school festival in the '90s—surely due to the fact that composer Hoyt Curtin wrote the tune over the oft-used chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” so the fact that Collier picked it to go wild on is less funny than it could have been, but, you have to admit that tearing to threads and sewing together again so spectacularly an otherwise throwaway piece of cultural cloth has its appeal. 

There’s a lot of novelty in this album, though, believe me it’s not empty calorie novelty—but the meat of the thing comes out in songs like the ode-to-his music room, “Hideaway,” and the spare “In the Real Early Morning,” where his full voice stretching—as opposed to the gentle control of his falsetto we hear on most of the record—really lets loose deep emotional resonance. 

In a 2004 essay by Michel Delville and Andrew Norris called “Disciplined Excess: The Minimalist / Maximalist Interface in Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart,” the authors begin the section called “Minimalism into Maximalism Will Go” by quoting the first four lines of William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence,” which I think are a fitting close here, not simply because, yes, Collier created expanding and exploding worlds all from within his room, but also fitting because these very words, I came to discover, were set to music by the English composer Benjamin Britten in his song cycle, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Britten being a composer that changed the way Collier viewed harmony. Collier, at the age of 13, before his voice broke, performed in an English National Opera production of Britten’s chamber opera called The Turn of the Screw, in which he sang the high treble part of “Miles.” “The harmonies are so, so cool,” he says about performing Brittain’s music, “that my mind was shattered outwards.”

Here’s the quotation from Blake’s poem:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

 

Episode 32: Odessey and Oracle (The Zombies, 1968)

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Abbey Road Studios—the summer of 1967. The Beatles had, just about a month earlier, wrapped up their ground-breaking sessions that would become their eight studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In walk another set of loveable English lads—The Zombies—well-dressed, well-rehearsed and raring to go, working on what they were already quite sure would be their second and final recording, Odessey And Oracle. They’d had a #2 hit in America with their 1964 debut single, “She’s Not There,” but reception of the band was quieting, and they were still living with their parents. So? One last hurrah. They’d had a clear vision for their songs and thus were able to convince CBS records—“with smarm and charm,” as they say—to give them £1000 and, importantly, to let them self-produce. Abbey Road Studios post-Sgt. Pepper’s was an ideal place to realize their lush, multi-layered backing vocal tracks, and instruments left behind from the Beatles’ session, such as the Mellotron—an early sampling keyboard that allowed them to quickly and easily infuse their often baroque arrangements with strings and flutes—provided a nice assist. Other instruments, on the other hand, like the pump-organ with its "high gothic top" that accompanied Chris White’s appropriately claustrophobic World War I-inspired song, "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914),” had to be carefully transported to the studio by the band.

The influence of the Beatles as well as the Beach Boys shines through in the backing vocals of the bouncy opening track, called “Care of Cell 44,” which takes the unique form of a man’s letter his loved one, soon slated to be released from prison. After the verses, we hear those hums plus “bum-bum-bums” that so readily signal Beach Boys, followed immediately by open-throated, Beatlesque “Ah” backings.

Strains of melancholy run throughout the album, but nowhere quite so plainly as in the second track, “A Rose for Emily.” The title was borrowed from a 1930 Faulkner short story, but aside from both texts invoking images of graves and the view that, in the face of tragedy, nothing can be done, the song’s “Emily” was drawn from whole cloth. The song’s character is described—through the beautifully empathetic voice of lead-singer Colin Blunstone—as being surrounded by, but always left out of affairs of love. Summer arrives, but her sky is overcast. She tends to her rosebush, from which young lovers, swirling around her, pick flowers to give to anyone but her. Her pride, the only thing protecting her from pain, is no match for time’s nonchalant snuffing-out of both her and her roses. Heigh-ho, alas, and also lack-a-day: Not one rose left even for her grave. The elementary piano accompaniment complements beautifully the deep and luscious backing vocals.

In “Brief Candles,” three numb, spent lovers, fresh out of relationships, assess their respective loneliness, seeking the worthwhile in separation, enjoyment in their symptoms—their sadness makes them smile. Bassist Chris White, who wrote the song, said, “I suppose really it’s just about the ridiculousness of trying to make reasons of things.” The verses are quiet, accompanied only by piano, ramping up each time to the choruses, where the tempo and feel upshift, and bass, drums, and organ join in.

For such wonderfully psychedelic cover art—the misspelling of Odessey on the sleeve, by the way, uncaught by CBS’s art department through to the final pressing, was long face-savingly played-off by certain members of the band as just a hip play-on-words—anyway, for such a swirlingly-psychedelic artwork on the cover, the album is quite taught and composed through and through. No long and winding jams; and as for spacey effects, it’s pretty much limited to the brief, spooky fever-dream introduction of “Butcher’s Tale,” which lasts only 10 seconds before the pump organ appears and we’re off to the trenches.                                           

In the original release’s sleeve notes, the band included a foreshortened and slightly adjusted quotation from ol’ Will Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Be not afraid[afeared]; / The isle is full of noises / Sound[s], and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twang[l]ing instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices.” 

Rest assured there’s nothing to be afeared of, listening to The Zombies. And much to delight in. So check out Odessey and Oracle, following the advice of the jester Trinculo, who, after Caliban utters the words above, says, “The sound is going away; let's follow it, and after, do our work.”

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

 

Episode 31: Frank Fairfield (Frank Fairfield, 2009)

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It was June 2015, and Frank Fairfield was calling it quits. At long last, the anachronistic singer, guitarist, banjoist, and fiddler was officially done with the music racket. “I don’t feel I have a thing to offer,” he wrote in a Facebook post, of all places. “There are a few scattered dates already booked throughout the year which I’m obliged to see through. Hopefully after that I won’t have to play another damn note of music.”

It had only been seven years that Fairfield was enmeshed in that racket—which is to say, known outside of those within earshot of his street busking. In 2008, he was spotted on the street by Matt Popieluch—the former frontman for the band Foreign Born—who quickly came to manage Fairfield’s music career, and hooked him up with those darlings of the new-folk scene, The Fleet Foxes, for whom Fairfield would spend a season as the opening act. Soon thereafter, Fairfield was connected with Tompkins Square records—a label dedicated to old-timey music, both archival and newly-hewn—which would release this, his self-titled first full-length.

The album, released in 2009, is a collection of what might be broadly referred to as “traditional” tunes, though Fairfield sees them more as popular tunes, intended for everyone to sing. They’re not old songs, they’re now songs. He pooh-poohs the concept of owning a song—and even that of covering a song—dismissing them as modern corporate inventions. “You don’t ‘cover’ a Chris Smith song,” Fairfield explains. “You just sing it… These guys didn’t write these songs to own them, they wrote these songs to put into sheet music so they could be sung across the whole country.”

Fairfield is careful to respect the style while not resorting to treating it as some fragile egg, not least by digging into and finding his own way through the songs. On the opening track, called “Nine Pound Hammer,” the percussive plucking and strumming on the banjo is frantic and unyielding—chasing its tail, yipping and yapping—but always right there, dogging the ankles of his calmly strutting, melismatic vocal.

On the track, “Call Me a Dog When I’m Gone”—a tale of a groused-about gamblin’ man who just knows people will change their tune when he shows back up with a ten-dollar bill—we get to hear Fairfield’s mastery of the fingerstyle guitar. His style is full and driving—with a rhythmic pop reminiscent the great blind Reverend Gary Davis.

Fairfield is no mere cosplayer of the bygone; he embodies the aesthetic in everything from his high-waisted pants and buttoned-up button-downs to his sparsely-decorated apartment where gramophone grooves trump television channels. Born in southeast Texas, the son of a Mennonite minister, Fairfield had worked many odd jobs to stay afloat, but he came to find busking—playing on the street for whomever passes by—a more satisfying way to make a living. He shrugs off the overly romantic view, so often lobbed his way, that he is born of the wrong era—a man out of time. “I just think everything is as it should be and everything is just fine,” he says. His way of moving through life relies on letting what comes come—not forcing anything. He speaks softly in a gentle tenor mumble and sings with a quiver in the voice—a tremble in the tone that you don’t hear much nowadays. 

On track five, we’re treated to a stark and powerful interpretation of “The Dying Cowboy”—a song that might be better known to most as “The Streets of Laredo,” notably performed by Johnny Cash. Fairfield’s version is accompanied by his doleful fiddle—perched down in the armpit rather than up under the chin—with a single ornamented melodic line, dancing around a single open string, droning throughout.

One of my favorites on the record is the banjo-backed English ballad called “Margaret and Sweet William.” In the song, Sweet William remembers his long-lost love Margaret, who, whereupon having spied William and his new bride from a high window, tosses herself out that very window to her death. In Fairfield’s version, Margaret appears to William at the foot of his bridal bed that night as an apparition, spurring him to return to her home, only to find her cold corpse, which he then proceeds to kiss—hand, cheek, and lips. He falls asleep in her arms. In some versions of the song, William at this point dies of grief. Talking about the natural urge to sing heavy lonesome ballads, Fairfield notes, “We hear the owl hoot, and it just sounds so lonely. Everything mourns. The wolf howls. It’s perfectly natural to make a mournful sound, just as well as making a real chipper one.”

It’s tough to say whether Fairfield will fall back, or get dragged back into the music racket anytime soon, but rest assured that, in the meantime, he’ll abide, calmly making mournful and chipper sounds both, on the streets of some city, drawing smiles out of anyone smart enough to listen.  

If nothing else, take from Fairfield his outlook on finding the far-out in the everyday: “You're as far out as you're ever going to be anywhere you are. There's nowhere to go. Everything is wild and exciting.”

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 30: Olesi: Fragments of an Earth (Georgia Anne Muldrow, 2006)

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In a 2013 lecture–interview for Red Bull Music Academy, Roots drummer and Tonight Show bandleader, Questlove, reminisced about his mid-'90s conscious unraveling of the metronomic precision he’d long strove for, sparked by producer Jay Dee’s work on The Pharcyde’s second record, Labcabincalifornia. The kick drum on one song in particular sounded, in Questlove’s words, like it was being played by a “drunk three-year-old.” In 1996, when recording D’Angelo’s epic album Voodoo, Questlove was pushed to the brink, recalling, “He constantly… wanted me to drag the beat but then he dragged the beat behind me.” Any of you familiar with Voodoo surely know the feel I’m referring to here.

For Georgia Anne Muldrow, that feeling of laying back—in a word, her swing—is innate and required no unlearning. If the backbone of the beat is the metronome, her music is the circulatory and nervous systems, lub-dubbing and firing on different planes but always in harmony. It’s as if she regards the beat as it goes by rather than riding atop it. In a dual interview with her mother, singer-songwriter Rickie Byars Beckwith, Muldrow admits with laughter: “I always clap late. My whole life—I clap late. I sing late, I nod late. I come to interviews late; I’m just—late!”

Her 2006 album, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth—her first full-length release—is a wonder of self-production, and, as the subtitle suggests, an otherworldly collection of snippets and snatches, some ending abruptly, some quickly fading out. 21 tracks under 50 minutes. For that very reason, this album is a great introduction to Muldrow’s work. The sampler-like record acts almost like a collection of journal entries—letting you in close for a peek, and then, the page turns.

The most substantial track—in length, if not subject matter—is the lead-off, called “New Orleans.” It is a brutally powerful opening statement, with Muldrow kicking the song off by singing, “Murderer / damage / a human life alone to die.” As listeners, we find ourselves awash in splashing cymbals, drowning in swirling ghostly background voices, and pounded and puctuated by an crooked machine-gun snare loop. Only one tiny window, at one and a half minutes in, offers a moment of relief—a brief chin above water, affording us just a half-breath—before being dragged again into the relentless deep. Muldrow’s voice doesn’t let up, approaching screams as she sings of the water and the flesh-and-blood it contains. Only in the last 15 seconds of the five-and-a-half minute song does the deluge recede, and she sings, “Listen child, dontcha know / It’s just my natural ebb and flow.”

In one interview, Muldrow tells of her formative memories hearing her father, guitarist Ronald Muldrow, playing "Giant Steps," which, for those unaware, is a composition by John Coltrane that was ground-breaking for its constantly shifting harmonic ground, never settling down into a “home base,” where complacency—in artist or listener—might creep in. That constant, clear-eyed vigilance and harmonic fluidity—the feeling of freedom to cross borders, or, better, eliminate them entirely—permeates Olesi. With squinting ears, one might even hear resonances of a beautifully wobbly cassette tape—the Doppler affecting the landscape.

Often compared to jazz luminaries like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, Muldrow once replied, in a manner that bespoke both her modesty and her bold ambitions, that, “for me, my aim is not to sound like Ella; my aim is to free my people.” Elsewhere, when asked about how she would hope people would see her legacy—what she’d want them to say about her—she took a beat, and said simply, “The greater legacy I hope to leave is what people will say about themselves.” For my money, Muldrow is less Simone and Fitzgerald, and more in the vein of June Tyson, the long-time vocalist with the Sun Ra Arkestra. I hear it in their sinewy melodic contours, their socially conscious and poetic lyrics, the space they don’t leave.

The indefinite article in the album’s subtitle, “Fragments of an Earth”; the name of her label, “Some Other Ship”; along with more overt references to outer space within Olesi’s lyrics, points to Muldrow’s hitching of her wagon to the rocketships of artists like Sun Ra himself, George Clinton, and others who used outer space references and iconography to explore such themes as alienation and identity in the Black experience.

Nearer to the end of the twentieth century, in a 1993 album, another vocalist and political activist, Abbey Lincoln—who, as it happens, like Muldrow also has a near-jarringly laid-backness to her style—poignantly invoked the outer reaches of the universe when she sang the following, in an ode to her mother: “Evalina Coffey made the journey here / Traveled in her spaceship from some other sphere / Landed in St. Louis, Chicago, and L.A. / A brilliant shining mother ship / From six hundred trillion miles away.”

Among the many tracks on Olesi, one can hear doo wop within boom bap, diamond basslines and parallel choirs, spoken word and rap and everything in between, salsa brass samples and garage beats, new-soul and old-school rubbing shoulders, and so on.

Olesi is a dense record, inhabited not only with Muldrow’s voice—or, rather, voices, what with her lush multi-tracking—but also the voices of generations before her. Her relationship to the past is deep and reciprocal: “I’m working on my receptive energy, for the ancestors to sing through me, so you’re going to hear a lot of different things because I’m giving them permission. And they’re giving me permission to sing, you see? And so I give them permission to use me to sing.”

On the track called “Wheels,” inspired by a John Outerbridge sculpture, Muldrow ties things up nicely: “Fabric of mankind is bursting at the seams / do as the birds do: keep singing ‘til you’re free.” 

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 29: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (James Booker, 1987)

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In the 2013 documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker—a film that only very recently was made available on streaming services—there is a full minute of footage containing people who knew pianist and singer James Booker telling the multifarious stories they had heard about how Booker had lost his left eye:

Goons hired by a disgruntled record contractor;
creditors who gave him a choice of an eye or a finger;
a fight in Angola;
the CIA;
a simple infection;
the Mafia;
a pool cue whack to the side of the head;
“something to do with Jackie Kennedy”;
defenestration;
plied out by an owed drug dealer.

Or, as a popular one goes, perhaps Beatle Ringo Starr put it out—sure, why not—and Booker memorialized the occasion by wearing an eyepatch decorated by a gold star. In the words of Booker’s old classmate Elaine Parker-Adams, “I’m sure Booker knew how he had insured himself. But you will never know.”

Booker was an enigma. A wild, unpredictable, hilarious, strung-out, don’t-give-no-bones-about-what-anyone-things, flamboyant enigma—who happened to be one of the most incredible pianists there ever was.

When producer Joe Boyd floated the idea that perhaps Booker record a solo album—just him and the piano—Booker scoffed, claiming if he was gonna make a record, he’d need his band. Three weeks later, as Boyd recalls, when Booker was in need of money, he’d gone back to Boyd and took him up on the idea after all—on the one condition, that is, that his piano in the studio be outfitted with a candelabra. Why? Why, he’s The Black Liberace, of course. Those studio recordings became the beautiful 1977 release, Junco Partner.

This album, titled New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!—also just Booker and his piano—was recorded in front of an enthusiastic-if-rhythmically-challenged Zurich audience the same year as Junco Partner’s release, and posthumously re-released by Rounder Records a decade later, in 1987. From the first pair of tunes—the silver-lining-focused “Sunny Side of the Street” and the deep-and-dark blues, “Black Night” (a pair you could call Bookers’ theme songs, of sorts)—one is given some insight into the scope of Booker’s emotional range. 

In “Black Night,” Booker sings with a birdless, existential loneliness what, in a lesser artist’s hands, might come off as a trite and cliched blues lyric: “Nobody cares about me / and I ain’t even got a friend / my baby’s gone away and left me / and when will my troubles end?”

On “Sunny Side of the Street,” rather than sing the usual final A section’s buoyant lyric as “If I never had a cent, I’d be rich as Rockefeller,” Booker ditches the analogy and simply, and powerfully, sings, “If I never ever had another cent, I still really wouldn’t be so worried.”

He had within his spidery hands many musical lineages from which he could draw. His parents were both pianists and they had outfitted him with piano lessons through age 12. In the few recordings he produced, you could hear Chopin in his harmonies; his alternately pillow-soft and knock-your-socks-off-with-one-punch touch bespoke years of diligent training. But of course the man was no conservatory conservative; he was steeped in music of New Orleans, and pulled too from the records of more well-known pianists. On New Orleans Piano Wizard, you can clearly hear the influence of Ray Charles on the patient, gospel-tinged slower blues numbers—particularly on “Come Rain or Come Shine”—and the steady left hand against the time-taking right of Erroll Garner on tracks like “Keep on Gwine.”

His chugg-a-lugging and modulating version of “Something Stupid”—which even nods for a few seconds in the direction of a cha-cha groove—is a tidy and sweet little gift that pushes the hungry audience to beg for more.

While “Something Stupid”’s lyrics, which, sadly, we don’t get to hear Booker sing, tell of the narrator going and spoiling a good thing by saying something stupid like “I love you,” I can imagine Booker playing it and thinking back to, say, when he and Dr. John, then involved with a bogus road act—passing themselves off as famous bands of the day like Huey Smith and the Clowns, whose “Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” had sold over a million copies—were pulled over by Mississippi state police after getting found-out and busted by a local promoter. While Dr. John envisioned the dungeon they’d surely be locked up in, Booker hopped from the car and told the cops, “Now look, don’t you worry ‘bout what the man told you. We threw the weed out the car miles back.” As Dr. John remembers, the cops laughed, they didn’t even search the car, and they just told them to get out of town and stay out.

Saying something stupid that went and saved the day.

To me, the crown jewel of the record is the penultimate track, the heartbreakingly raw love song “Let Them Talk,” a song that tells the whispering gossipers to shove it, sung by a man whose sexual predilections at the time surely elicited their share of talk. We hear here Booker standing most tall, open and defiant, as he lived.

If you’ve never heard James Booker, get into him with New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live!, and supplement that dose with the documentary Bayou Maharajah. They will open up your ears and eyes both. It’s likely Booker will never receive his full due. But ask any pianist in the know: many would give their left eye to play the way he did.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 28: DADO v. The Universe (Shape King, 2016)

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After a brief and goofy introductory nose-trumpet fanfare, DADO v. The Universe begins.

The album’s seemingly lofty title—a title which alludes to the many personal and practical hurdles that Raphael Peterson, a.k.a. SHAPE KING, faced in bringing this project into existence—is immediately and hilariously undercut by the message of the tip-toeing opening track, titled “Get Mine,” in which our anti-hero proclaims, “I just wanna get mine. I can’t save the world, I don’t have the time.” We come to learn that in fact there is a battle raging about-but-out-of-sight-from this college-educated, comfort-obsessed Bacchus; but he simply prefers—and has the necessary privilege—to enjoy his wine and Laceycakes in peace upon his plush recliner. In one of the lovelier lines I’ve heard in a long while—and this is an album brimming with lovely lines—Peterson sings: “I’ll quantify the crimson drops that tickle on my tongue / and turn them into points of pleasure ‘til the battle’s done.”

It’s this quantification of things that would or should otherwise be unquantifiable—wine drops, comfort, and people alike—and the subsequent possibilities for their exchange and exploitation that drives Peterson here. To turn into numbers is, in essence, to de-essentialize. The digitalization of the world.

Throughout the otherwise austerely orchestrated song, the stereo field is littered with the dings and cha-chings of cash registers and the rhythmic tape-advancement of accounting calculators. The sounds, that is, of the commerce of an earlier, mechanical era.

The album continues with the wholly different tune called, “We Are Together,” which, refuting the self-centeredness of the previous track’s narrator, bursts forth with the smiling-eyed awareness of a thousand contingencies and a contingency. And what could be more feel-good than contingency? We could be so many things and we’re all together. The tune’s emphatic steady pulse pushes one to dance—while wily synth lines titter and spin. Peterson’s melody here can’t be beat, and with the subtle and effective shifting between 5/4 and 6/4, it’s got just enough going on to keep you on your toes.

There is an earnestness to Peterson’s music that is undeniably endearing, and it doesn’t hurt that DADO v. The Universe is overflowing with quality songwriting and performance both.

The third track, "Bushwick Bitch," is, in Peterson’s words, “an ode to an idea of the Bushwick Woman: erudite, articulate, well-educated, beautiful, tattooed, crass.” He adds that, “It’s also a critique of people of any gender who embody some of those characteristics air-dropping into Brooklyn and altering neighborhoods.” The narrator, in hushed and distorted tones, sing-speaks his complicated adoration of her ways, and his urge to spend the night—wanting her to set him right.

“Bushwick Hitch” could be read as the culmination of this set-up. A love song sung so sincerely that not even the nearly silly, tourist-island counter-rhythmic xylophone nor the in-your-face wobbly synth can take it down. Pretensions drop like hairpins and blue jeans.

The eighth track, “Odyssey,” takes as its premise the idea of a modern-day Odysseus, trying to make it home, tempted by the Siren song of needing to check his phone. He is, as the tune begins, already comfortably complacent—much like the couch-bound lead of the opening track—but begins to feel a resurgence of will, only to plonk down again on account of all those blinking lights and vibrating encasements that promise something better, but in the end of course can’t deliver. The song ends with a whiff of hope, with our Odysseus seemingly ready to overcome his obstacles, aiming for that something better still waiting for him at home. 

According to Peterson, “[Odyssey] goes hand in hand with ‘Virtual Vacation’,” the track that precedes it—a wordless soundscape featuring the thick, low, white noise of waves. It’s intended, he says, “to be the sound of watching a video about a vacation on your phone while on vacation.” To my mind, “Virtual Vacation” in turn goes hand in hand with track five, called “Waterfall.” One of the melodic themes from “Waterfall” rocks atop “Vacation”’s waves, slowly corrupting its ending with crunchier, spookier harmonies as it loops, until it finally finds home again, resolving into a major triad.

“Waterfall” itself is masterful. As with so many of these tracks, the presence of familiar sounds of bygone eras laden with cultural baggage—in this case a descending 8-bit waterfall—is both intentional and welcome. Peterson’s lyrics are flawless here: “And when I get to the top I’ll let all my worries go / I’ll fall down in a veil and drop like a heavy stone / and drag myself from the bottom then rise again.” The floating melodic line on “heavy stone” gorgeously counters any expectation for pat text-painting. The chorus, awash as it is with cave-like reverberation, compounds the chant-influenced, meditative feel of the song.

While not a concept album per se, connections run through the album between many songs. Such struts and ties—intentional or no—help make DADO V. The Universe the alluring tensegrity structure that it is.

I can’t speak highly enough about this album and strongly urge you to head over to shapeking.bandcamp.com to, you know, get yours.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.

Episode 27: Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen, 1982)

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Taste and judgement: the two needn’t align. In fact, as W. H. Auden once wrote, “As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don't like.” He went on to list the five possible verdicts that an adult reader (so to speak) might come to. Four of them seem obvious enough:

  • I can see this is good and I like it;
  • I can see this is good but I don't like it;
  • I can see that this is trash but I like it; and
  • I can see that this is trash and I don't like it.

But it’s the fifth verdict—the one Auden drops without fanfare between the pair of pairs above—that I view as the most compelling, and, given that in this episode we’ll be discussing Bruce Springsteen—that hugely popular icon that divides listeners into believers and non-believers—the most apt: “I can see this is good and though at present I don't like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it.”

For as long as I can remember, The Boss has been for me back-burner at best. More often than not, I wrote him off as a wheezing phony, whose pedestrian, workaday lyrics—masquerading as high art—were laid atop unimaginative and uninspired bedding, supplied by what sounded to me like a solid corporate wedding band. And yet! I’ve never given up the idea that with perseverance I might find a way in, if not actually come to like it.

In 2011, I attended a birthday concert for Sting at the Beacon Theater in New York, and among the long list of musical guests, which included Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, Vince Gill, and Herbie Hancock, was one Bruce Springsteen. When he appeared on the stage toward the end of the show, alone with a twelve string—fans in the audience performing their traditional “Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce” welcome—I braced myself. What I heard in that solo, out of time version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” was shimmering and lovely, sensitive and solid, humble and confident. The door had creaked open a crack, and I glimpsed the golden light. There was a way in for me.

He followed up with a full-band reading of another—admittedly, Springsteenian in tone—Sting tune, “I Hung My Head,” which tells of a man who accidentally shoots another, and the utter existential shame it brings upon him. Springsteen takes the liberty—as Johnny Cash had before him, in his 2002 cover—of pulling the tune down out of its original liltingly crooked 9/8 time signature, into the four-beats-per-measure signature of the every man. In hindsight, the odd-meter treatment of the original almost feels more clever than anything else.

Springsteen sold me that night, providing me at very least a foothold that I might use to find the next.

A few weeks back, I asked my most knowledgable and Springsteen-minded friend which album he thought I should cover. And in an instant, he said, “Nebraska.

The 1982 record, Springsteen’s sixth, has a good deal going for it for someone like me. Fittingly, while it’s not necessarily the top choice for John Q. Brucehead, it’s been referred to as “the only record you can push on the non-believers.” Among other things, it’s a one-man, bedroom production: no E-Street Band, nor throngs of screaming die-hards to contend with.

Rather than spend the cash working out demos in the studio, he had asked his guitar tech, Mike Batlan, to get him set-up with one of those newfangled portable four-track cassette recorders in his Colt’s Neck, NJ house. The songs he produced there in early January, 1982—layered with guitar and mandolin; glockenspiel and harmonica; organ, synth and tambourine—were intended to act as demos to give his band an idea of what he was aiming for. The four-track recordings were mixed down through a guitar Gibson Echoplex unit, and then onto a boom box. “Not finely-honed recording equipment,” Springsteen would laughingly admit, but the kind of boom box you take to the beach that “sucks in the sand and keeps playing.” This questionable equipment helped lend Nebraska its patina. And when the band couldn’t successfully recapture its eery aura in the studio, the demo cassette, which Springsteen had been carrying around willy-nilly in his pocket for three weeks, was—aside from some serious mastering to clean up all the tape hiss—released as it was.

Do I like this album? I do.

In the spirit of affirmation, let me count the ways:

  • I like the vulnerability—in his vibrato on “Mansion on the Hill,” in his glockenspiel playing on “Used Cars,” in his awkward-but-earnest squeezing of the lyrics “’Til the sign said ‘Canadian border 5 miles from here’” in the end of a phrase in “Highway Patrolman.”
  • I like that he packs his bleak lyrical themes in major keys, the way Kelly Joe Phelps talks about hiding his dark stuff in the waltzes.
  • I like that he indulges in the true-crime story of the spree killer Charles Starkweather as fodder for a song, continuing the dying tradition of the murder ballad.
  • I like that his harmonica is so hot in the mix—at times enough to make you wince—just as Bob Dylan’s was at the end of his “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.”   
  • I like Springsteen’s prairie-ish background yelps, barks, and hollers, and I especially like the completely wild-eyed, hazy-minded, delay-drenched, full-throatedly paranoid scream at the end of “State Trooper.”
  • I like that that same paranoid narrator in “State Trooper” has “done things” but we aren’t let in on what they are. 
  • I like the description of bleak and cold desperation that can lead a man toward sin in “Johnny 99.”
  • I like that the closer, “Reason to Believe,” sums up the mind-boggling and unexplainable perseverance of those faced with seemingly dead ends.

If nothing else, I can now say that there’s a Bruce Springsteen record that I truly like. And Nebraska, a deeply personal album that strips away all those excesses I’d come to see as bound up with the artist and his music, has given me reason to believe that, while I do acknowledge the goodness of much of Springsteen’s catalog, with perseverance, I shall come to like more and more.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

 

Episode 26: Live at Fillmore West (Aretha Franklin, 1971)

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Bill Graham barrels through his intro. In one long breath save the final word, Graham says, “For all of us here at Fillmore West this is a long-awaited privilege and a great pleasure to bring on the number-one lady, Ms Aretha… Franklin.”

Pulling no punches from the start, the band, led by King Curtis, with four stomps of a foot rips into a blazing-fast, catch-me-if-you-can version of Franklin’s 1967 mega-hit, “Respect.” The song, written by Otis Redding, sets the tone for this recording, 1971’s Aretha—Live at Fillmore West—in a serious way. A breakdown around two and a half minutes exposes just how incredibly tight the back-up singers—The Sweethearts of Soul—sound. Of course, it’s a crack band through and through, comprising, among others, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Billy Preston on organ, the great Bernard Purdie on drums, and not least, Franklin herself on Rhodes. After some riffing over the outro vamp, Franklin, clearly out of breath, welcomes the well-integrated crowd—leather-jacket-clad Black Power radicals and be-tie-dyed longhairs alike. “Relax and loan your soul to us for a few minutes,” she invites. “I promise you when you leave here, you’re gonna have enjoyed this show as much as any you’ve had occasion to see.”

The crowd is really turned on by the time Franklin gets to her deep blues, “Dr. Feelgood,” another tune, like “Respect,” originally released on her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this one significantly slowed down from the original. Franklin wails; the audience responds in kind. By the time she reaches the stop-time chorus, she’s joined by a spontaneous chorus of young women who can’t help but join in at full volume. By the tune’s end, she’s taken the crowd to church, shouting fire, asking for “yeahs” and getting them and then some. Who needs Dr. Feelgood when you’ve got Aretha Franklin?

She returns to church later in the set when she plays the title track from her previous record, Spirit in the Dark. The song, which starts out ambling—it’s almost a funky dirge—soon clicks into double-time, as Franklin sings about moving with spirit. But after three minutes, Franklin’s electric piano introduces a newly redoubled tempo, pushing them into truly spirit-moving shout-band territory. After the thrilling conclusion, as band and crowd both catch breath, Franklin pulls from the wings a special guest—the Right Reverend Ray Charles—to join her for a lengthy, packed-with-jam reprise of “Spirit in the Dark.” Charles had to be cajoled into giving permission for his appearance to be released, owing to the fact that he was self-conscious about having muffed the lyrics. But Aretha had no such reservations, saying of the duet, “Between the two of us, soul oozed out of every pore of the Fillmore. All the planets were aligned right that night, because when the music came down, it was as real and righteous as any recording I’d ever made.” She was 28 at the time.

Over the course of the three-night engagement, Franklin had not only included powerfully individual versions of some of her established pop covers, such as the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—on which she played the first verse on the Rhodes to great effect—but she also brought forth two covers she’d prepared especially for the Fillmore: Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With”—“a little something we’re experimenting with,” she tells the audience—and Bread’s “Make it with You.” Yes, yes, of course this was a calculated appeal by producer Jerry Wexler to the Fillmore’s regular crowd of flower children, but with all of these songs drawn through Franklin’s brilliant conception, and played by the one of the funkiest, most solid bands there ever was, the result is anything but pandering. "Take the old and make it new; take the new and make it holy."

The album ends as the evenings did, with a relaxed and swaying version of Ashford and Simpson’s song, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” prefaced by a compliment from Franklin to the crowd that they had been “much more than I could have ever expected.”

Take a listen to this old album when you can, and make it new. The holy part it’s already got covered.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week. 

Episode 25: Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon (Conjure, 1988)

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In the 1995 book Plunderphonics, ‘Pataphysics & Pop Mechanics, guitarist Eric Rosensveig of the improvising trio called Fat, compares one of their projects to Kip Hanrahan’s projects, saying, “Players from a lot of different styles or schools, trying to create a music that doesn’t exist but nonetheless would sound very natural.”

Hanrahan, a producer/percussionist, has been pulling together such “non-existent and natural” music for decades now. One of the most enduring and fruitful of his collaborations over the years, that with the writer Ishmael Reed, produced two albums in the '80s: 1984’s Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed, and this week’s Album of the Week, 1988’s Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon. There was third album in the series, Bad Mouth, which would eventually come out in 2005.

Conjure, as the group would become known by the release of Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, was more of an institution than a set band proper. This album, Cab Calloway, features a core crew, comprising some of the finest jazz, funk, latin, and free-jazz musicians you could imagine at that time, and peppers the tracks with guest stars aplenty, not least Ishmael Reed himself. While the first record in the Conjure series mainly featured Taj Mahal as the lead vocalist, here, it’s the great Bobby Womack as the headliner. That said, one of the great draws of Cab Calloway is that the music was composed and arranged by various members of the band, and will often feature those very musicians singing lead on their tunes, and beyond that, the record features four additional guest vocalists throughout. With no track-by-track credit listing and so many singers, guitarists, percussionists, etc., one has to make educated guesses about who is doing what. Looked at another way, though, it gets you listening closely to the subtle shapeshifting between, and even within, songs.

Reed’s poetry is alive with the rhythm of the spoken—the spirit of the oral tradition. You could say that with Reed, the gateway between the written and the spoken has been busted wide open, allowing safe passage in either direction. Reed has said that the musicians who composed and played the music for these albums didn’t have to do much, since the rhythm was already there in the writing. A talking book turns into singing. In fact, where I note the few dips and fallings-short of this album is where those buoyant and pugilistic rhythms are forced into and constrained within a boxy framework, rather than allowed to bubble and blossom of their own accord.

Hanrahan is a cobbler and a catalyst, bringing together musical genres and personalities he loves, and seeing what comes of it; Reed is a self-described “ethnic gate-crasher," “a scavenger at work,” a “garbage recycler…reprocessing the trash and the throwaways of the American experience.” In this way, their aesthetics both mirror and complement each other.

In 1973, Deborah Lee of Ebony magazine reviewed Reed’s first collection of poetry, also entitled Conjure, saying that Reed “brought together a black magical selection of his poetry that would please any necromancer… While the poems are largely autobiographical, Reed’s experiences as a black man are universal enough to be embodied in a pan-cultural ethos which he calls Neo-HooDoo.”

Reed explained Necromancy to mean people going back to get “some metaphor from the past to explain the present or the future.” In the same interview, published in 1974, Reed cites the roots of the term: “Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. That is prophecy. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future.”

As for Neo-Hoodooism, Hoodoo has been referred to under many a pejorative banner, including black magic, witchcraft, and devil’s work; but it is also known to many as spirit work, root work, spiritualism, psychic work, and—the term that graced the collective of musicians herein—conjure.

This album’s title is pulled from Reed’s 1970 piece called Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon or D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful, originally published in the anthology 19 Necromancers from Now and referred to as a “coming attraction” for his 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo. “It was based,” Reed says of Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, “not upon other writing, but upon examples of dolls I had seen in books and museums. Gris-gris dolls. I wanted to make a crude fetish that would put a “writing” on an individual considered an enemy of the tribe… aim a psychic “fix” at this individual.”

To the music!

The album begins with one of my favorite tracks on any record, "The Author Reflects on his 35th Birthday." Written by bassist Steve Swallow, and featuring Bobby Womack on vocal and the completely unstoppably Eddie Harris on tenor saxophone. Swallow’s bass and Don Pullen’s organ are a dramatic constant, meditatively whirling in tight circles as the narrator comments on how he hasn’t been mean enough thus far in his life, and to rectify this, he implores the personified “35”—his “old friend”—to make him all the types of mean he wishes to become now that he’s met the big 3-5: Mean as the town Bessie sings about “Where all the birds sing bass” / Dracula mean / Beethovenian-brows mean / Miles Davis mean / Don’t offer assistance when / Quicksand is tugging some poor dope under mean / Pawnbroker mean / Pharaoh mean…

Et cetera, et cetera.

The second track, "Loup Garou Means Changes Into," is funky latin written by and featuring on both tenor sax and lead vocals the aforementioned comPLETEly unstoppable Eddie Harris. Translated less poetically, Loup Garou actually means werewolf, the “eager Beast” inside oneself, which Reed, in his poem, looks to shed, or banish. Tied inversely to the lead-off track, mentioned above, the song ends before the poem goes on to note: “Folks say if you get to 30 / You can make it to 35 / The only stipulation is you / Leave your Beast outside.” While in “The Author Reflects,” the narrator is looking to welcome in that Beast at 35—that he hasn’t been mean enough getting there—here the Loup Garou is a liability. As an interesting twist, the laser-focused and funky, ever-under-control Harris plays a killer intro on tenor before handing sax duties off to—or perhaps more appropriately here, “changing into”—the wilder, free-ranging David Murray to tear things up as Harris sings Reed’s words.

Hanrahan has compared his role as producer to that of a film director, a position complicated (and perhaps even problematized) after hearing the snippet of Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon that Reed chose to excerpt and read within the fifth track’s medley. Reed reads:

“He chuckles to himself as he leaves his shop with the dog, three cents, on a leash. He has every reason to be pleased [with himself] because the night before he brought off one of the most difficult feats of sorcery. He entered a man’s dream and walked all over it as if he owned the place. He moved the scenes around with the deftness of a director from the Hollywood pantheon. He called the shots, edited the script, and gave the demons their cue.”

There is so much more to talk about on this album—Don Pullen’s sparkling and swinging vocal performance on his arrangement of the poem “My Brothers”; Reed’s solo-voice delivery of excerpts from his prose-poem “St. Louis Woman”; the solid vocal work by Olu Dara—father of the rapper Nas, for you hip-hop nerds—on the track “Nobody Was There”; and Reed’s relaxed and playful a cappella take on Cab Calloway’s big hit, “Minnie the Moocher,” backed up on the "hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi" call and response by Reed’s daughter Tennessee and, I’m guessing based on surname here, Eddie Harris’ daughter too, under the billing of “The Josephine Baker New Magic Chorus”… and on and on.

Suffice it to say that this is a many-layered album that, while not entirely spotless from stem to stern, is a powerful, living document, featuring an incredibly wide array of talent pulling out all stops. Hanrahan has talked about how he often includes not the so-called “perfect” take, but the one “where the mistakes were perfect.” On that take, he says, “the mistakes were showing what we were going for; [and] when we got it right, it was just reciting something that was composed before.”

Get to know your spirits and get thee to this strange orchard.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.