Sunday, October 26, 2014

David Bowie Is...In Chicago

When I fell for David Bowie back in 1981, I fell hard. While I had always prided myself somewhat on maintaining enough critical distance from musicians to avoid sheer fandom, Bowie fascinated me like no other artist and I went willingly down the rabbit hole of his career. The catalyst had been the casual purchase of the ChangesTwoBowie compilation as a holiday gift for my brother. I think it may have been only the second Bowie album in the house, believe it or not, with the other being Changes One.

Perhaps because it covered a longer period than the first collection, it gradually dawned on me how varied his work was. "All of these songs are so different," I remember thinking, " but they're all so good. What's going on here?" Game, set, match to Bowie as I began haunting my favorite used record stores for decent pressings of his catalog as the RCA "Nice Price" reissues used flimsy vinyl and indifferent color correction on the sleeves. In short order I had acquired them all and was busy absorbing song after song.

Interestingly, Bowie himself was basically absent from the world stage as I was losing myself in his past. The end of his RCA contract had coincided with the disastrous realization that he had essentially been turned into his own employee. Having almost nothing financially to show for creating one of the greatest multi-album runs in recorded history he had retreated to lick his wounds and plot his next steps. They turned out to be...dance steps. I stayed up late one night to hear the New York premiere of Let's Dance and it was instantly obvious that something had changed. It was a great song, fun to dance to, but the Nile Rodgers production gleamed just a bit too brightly and the seams in the songwriting were a little too obvious.

I didn't buy the album (it would be six years before I bought anything by him (I still stand by the first Tin Machine album, by the way)) but its success meant ubiquity for Bowie and I eagerly snatched up every magazine with him on the cover and paid a scalper $50, which felt like a fortune, to see him at Madison Square Garden on the Serious Moonlight tour. He was as astonishing a performer as I had hoped and I was thrilled when Stevie Ray Vaughn was replaced by Earl Slick, who was a connection, along with Carlos Alomar (ever-present on rhythm guitar) to the RCA years. How the heck was Vaughn going to play Heroes, anyway?

Many articles on Bowie start out remarking on how hard it can be to be a Bowie fan, what with his sometimes wayward career after Scary Monsters. But that's old news. Despite the 10 year hiatus between Reality and The Next Day, that makes three great albums in a row, with the latter being one of his strongest records period. And there seems to be more on the way: BBC 6 just premiered his new song, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), a striking collaboration with jazz composer Maria Schneider, that will appear on an upcoming retrospective, cleverly titled Nothing Has Changed.

All of this is to say that when it was announced that David Bowie Is, the comprehensive exhibition created by the Victoria and Albert Museum was touching down only in Chicago, I knew I had to get there. Thanks to my lovely and supportive wife, a plan was hatched to make a family trip of it and spend Columbus Day weekend in the Windy City. I knew I was in the right place when I took a random run near our hotel and came across a huge Aladdin Sane mural on the side of the museum. Above it was a sign: David Bowie Is Watching.

After a day of sightseeing on Saturday, we were among the first people at the Museum Of Contemporary Art on Sunday with our 10:00 AM timed tickets. The facade of the ultra-modern building hinted at the glories within, with another mural and Bowie's lyrics on the stairs to the entrance. When we told the greeter we were from New York, she said to our kids, "Wow. Do you know how cool your parents are right now?" I was beginning to really like this place! We checked our bags, ascended to the third floor and walked through the empty queue to pick up our headsets and enter the show.

Somewhere I had read that the average stay inside the exhibition was 90 minutes. I was in there for four hours, so deeply immersed it felt like mere minutes. Alongside the traditional vitrines and frames, the show uses cutting-edge display techniques like huge 3D shadow boxes with internal projections, which serve to bring various periods of his and career to life. Also, wearing the headphones, which delivered content triggered by where you stood in each gallery, had the effect of putting Bowie in your head, spoken words and music colonizing your consciousness.

Bowie saved everything so each room contained more than one astonishing artifact, from the document that made his name change official, to his coke spoon from the Thin White Duke era, to the ring of keys from his years in Berlin. And that's not even mentioning the creative memoribilia - hand-written song lyrics, sketched out vocal arrangements, storyboards for an abandoned film called Hunger City, instruments from guitars to keyboards. Then there are the costumes, some for performance and others for street wear. Along with the evidence of his inspirations - Anthony Newley, Lindsay Kemp, Ballard and Burroughs, etc. - this all has the effect of connecting you deeply with his process. Then when you turn a corner and are confronted with his product, say the performance of Starman on Top of the Pops, the impact is enormous (my wife watched that one four or five times, marveling at the bromance between Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson).

I'm not sure there has ever been a museum show that so explicitly lays out the path of an artist from preparation to experimentation to the creation of a new original. For Bowie, periods of research, drawing on seemingly disparate materials, are followed by an assembling of collaborators, often a familiar group with a wild card or two, and then working in the studio with lightning speed to capture a song before it ossifies. The way Bowie works is tailor-made for an exhibition like this and, having long found his methods instructive for the way an artist can operate, seeing it all in front of me was thrilling.

The rooms were laid out mostly chronologically, with strategic intrusions from other eras when it made artistic sense. Gradually it dawns on you that, even with his chameleonic ways, there are constants: the canny combination of abstraction and specificity in his lyrics, the draw of dance music, the clothing that reshapes his figure, the appeal of squalling guitars. He often stuck with collaborators like Ronson, Eno, Tony Visconti, or the designer Freddie Burretti, as long as possible, not casually casting people aside to get a quick infusion of new blood, and occasionally returning to people years later. One flaw in the show, although an understandable one, is that a neophyte could walk out thinking more about Bowie's extensive work with Alexander McQueen just because his name is on the wall, and have no idea who Mike Garson, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray are, just to mention a few of the musicians who were crucial to many of his best records and performances.

Speaking of performances, throughout the show, there is the occasional throb of what almost sounds like a live concert, noticeable even while wearing the headphones. This makes you wonder what you're missing and pulls you through the galleries. I was able to resist the temptation to dash ahead and let myself get thoroughly absorbed in everything. I knew I was getting closer when I got to the room where a well-edited loop of Bowie's film and theater work was running and the throb got louder. From his first appearance in the 1967 short The Boy, he was perfect for the camera, magnetic and controlled. By the time of The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Elephant man, he had learned how to invest his seemingly natural charisma with pathos and had become a great actor. Unfortunately absent is his spectacular turn from Extras, singing Pathetic Little Fat Man to Ricky Gervais, which proved comedy was also in his grasp. Based on the evidence in this room, there probably is more he could do with his acting talents if he so chose.

Finally it was time to enter the room where the noise was coming from. This turned out to be a larger than life showcase of some representative performances which were projected on three walls. Some of these were heard through the headphones but others were blasted into the open air, almost replicating the collective experience of being at the show. There was a stonking take on Jean Genie with Mick Ronson playing to rule the world - I almost applauded when it ended - and three versions of Heroes playing at the same time. One was part of The Concert for New York City, which was put on in the wake of 9/11 to raise funds for the rescuers. Gradually everyone in the room gravitated to that wall, mesmerized by Bowie's obviously heartfelt performance.

As the camera panned over the audience, filled with police officers and firemen in uniform and their families, I couldn't help but be reminded of all the emotions surrounding the city in those terrible days. And then I thought about how remarkable it was that this artist extraordinaire, who made the world safe for freaks and outsiders of every stripe, was also able to provide succor and uplift with grace and generosity to people who really needed it. Just one more incredible moment in the life and work of the man born David Robert Haywood Jones, someone who has enriched my musical, creative and emotional life immeasurably. As I left the show to puruse the extensive gift shop, I was filled with a sense of gratitude for his work and for the dedication of the curators who gave me this opportunity to engage with it on an entirely new plane.

David Bowie Is will go down in history as one of the greatest museum shows of all time. If you can't get there, I highly recommend ordering the beautifully executed catalog, which features essays by Camille Paglia and Jon Savage, among others, along with a generous selection of photographs. When you get your copy, dial up either this career-spanning mix or the original track list of ChangesTwoBowie, put on your own headphones, and dive in to the world of David Bowie. May your time there be as rewarding as mine was.

 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Working In Nashville


I had to go to Nashville for a nonprofit tech conference. Everything was taking place in the Gaylord Opryland, an outsized human-scale terrarium about 10 miles from the bright lights of Broadway. Since Nashville is Music City and I thought I might have a little time to explore what that meant, I started doing some research a couple of weeks before the trip. Serendipity called when I got an email from Noisetrade offering a free sampler of Nashville indie from Deer Head Music.

I shared it on Twitter and when Deer Head responded, I asked them for some venue suggestions. They came back with The Basement, Exit In, Mercy Lounge, the 5 Spot and the Stone Fox. None of these places are on Broadway, not that I knew the significance of that before I went down there. I Googled each venue, looking for promising bands that I might be able to catch in my limited free time. Mercy Lounge led me to The High Watt, which was featuring a four-act lineup on the Monday, headlined by Wild Ponies. I dialed up their 2013 album Things That Used To Shine and was greeted with the moody and menacing Make You Mine. Opening with a Link Wray-sized chord, this is a concise bit of noir, with spidery guitar from Doug Williams limning his wife Telisha's threats, sung in a crystal clear voice with a bit of twang. The second song, The Truth Is, has Telisha showing a more vulnerable side and is also a winner. Trigger moves at a gallop, with some fine fiddling, intricate picking and Doug chiming in on the chorus.

The whole album is pretty darn good, although I have a definite preference for the cuts that steer the furthest from country and where Doug unleashes the meanest guitar lines. So I had a plan. Strangely enough, no one else at the conference was feeling adventurous and preferred to either stay in the climate-controlled Gaylord, check out the Grand Ole Opry itself or wander the confines of Broadway. The shuttle dropped me off outside The Ryman. I walked down to Broadway and immediately saw why some people call the place Nashvegas. The neon was unrelenting, although some of it was very cool, and there was music blaring from windows and doors on two levels. Nothing I heard was very inspiring and it struck me that the performers in the tourist traps lining the street were little more than props, part of the experience visitors expected but not something you would travel to see, or remember much of afterwards.


I was seeking something more. But before going off the beaten path, I decided to stop into Ernest Tubb's record store, which has been there since the 50's. They had a deep selection of country, including some nice box sets from Bear Family. In the back was a little museum, with cutouts of Tubb, Hank, Dolly and Elvis. They also had Pete Drake's "talking" pedal steel, as heard on Lay Lady Lay and 1,000's of other songs. Since I was there, I picked up Lucinda Williams's fine new album along with an Earl Bostic CD from the bargain bin.

Stepping back onto the sidewalk, I gave myself over to Apple Maps for direction and Hiss Golden Messenger's extraordinary Lateness Of Dancers for musical fuel. As I walked, the sky to the south lit up regularly with cinematic bursts of lightning, lending a sense of occasion to my journey. After about a mile, I found myself at Cannery Row, an historic building that now houses three music venues (at least) and what looked like a gallery. What it didn't have was a restaurant so after paying my $3.00 ("Steep for Nashville on a Monday night," the doorman informed me) and getting my hand stamped at The High Watt, I went off in search of Peg Leg Porker for some barbeque. God, was that good, and perfectly matched by their house-bottled bourbon and a glass of George Dickel Barrel Select for good measure. But I digress.


Taylor Sorenson & friend
By the time I finished licking my fingers and got back to The High Watt, I had missed Lauryn Peacock's tuneful and thoughtful folk-rock but up next was Taylor Sorenson of The Trigger Code, a Nashville band with a big sound that was recently heard on the inaugural season of HBO's True Detective. It's been a couple of years since their last album, however, and Sorenson was here to workshop some new songs with another guitarist. Although he introduced them as acoustic songs, both guys were plugged in and ready to rock. Which they did, with intensity, Sorenson's boot hitting the stage on the choruses. While still ringing out with bold dramatic flourishes, the new songs sounded a bit more personal than their stuff on record, which can strain a little too much for the universal. It's a tough balance, but Sorenson has the grit and passion to find it.


Catherine Ashby
After a short break, Catherine Ashby took the stage, tall and striking in a long white tunic, her red hair offset by glittery eye shadow. Her 2012 album King Of My Sky has a beautiful warmth, reminiscent of Nick Drake and other English singer-songwriters. The songs are well-constructed and can be deeply touching, offering solace and delivering on that promise. Recently she's transplanted herself to our side of the pond, recording her latest EP, Tennessee Tracks, in Nashville, and as soon as she started singing I Tweeted "where Laurel Canyon meets the English Hills," trying to capture the influences she was so perfectly weaving.

The EP was produced by Lorna Flowers, like Ashby an English songwriter drawn to Nashville. In the 10 years since she arrived, she became a nurturing force among Nashville musicians. Unfortunately, that tight-knit community said goodbye to Flowers earlier this year when she succumbed to cancer. She did a beautiful job with Ashby's songs, adding just enough detail to the songs with pedal steel and strings, a restrained rhythm section and a rich sound. Tennessee Tracks is a worthy addition to her legacy and an excellent introduction to Ashby's talent. Performing with just another guitarist, Ashby was a confident and charming advocate for her songs and sang beautifully. I couldn't help but think what those people packing the bars of Broadway were missing, as there were only 20 or 30 people at The High Watt.


Wild Ponies
The crowd might have been small but it was very enthusiastic, and never more so as when Wild Ponies finally took the stage. They came hot out of the gate, Doug Williams spraying shards from his telecaster and Telisha Williams dwarfed by her bass but fully in command. I didn't catch the drummer's name but she was right there along with them, pushing her small kit to the limit. This is what I had been hoping to hear from them and it was fantastic. While the whole set didn't hit me as hard that's only because I like their electric side best. There is no doubt that they can do whatever they choose to do, and in a big way. Doug and Telisha are clearly a force to be reckoned with and when Telisha remarked that this was "an unusual Wild Ponies show because nobody has died yet," I admit to being slightly relieved that she was only talking about singing a murder ballad, which they then went on to do with aplomb

This was Wild Ponies last Nashville concert until mid-December as they are heading out on an extensive tour, including nearly a dozen dates in the UK. I wouldn't be surprised if they inspired a few more musicians to get on a plane and explore Music City. On my way out of The High Watt, I chatted with Doug and he was as friendly as his guitar playing is fierce. Catherine Ashby was also charming, signing my copy of Tennesee Tracks with a flourish. I would've hung out longer but I had to catch the last bus to the Gaylord.

As Hiss Golden Messenger sung me back to my hotel room, I felt that I had drank deeply from a rich source of music. I won't say I found the "real Nashville" on Cannery Row as the rhinestone and neon glitz is just as much a part of that as the simple verities of great singing, songwriting and playing. I do feel I found a corner of town that fed me and kept me satisfied even in the weeks since I returned to NYC - and I'm not just talking about Peg Leg's ribs. Next year's conference has already been scheduled in Austin. I've heard you can catch a little music there, too.

Here's a playlist of some of what I listened to and heard in Nashville.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bandcamp Bump: Debby Schwartz, Eddie Dixon, Etc.

It remains to be seen if Bandcamp will save the music business, but one thing is certain: there's a whole lot of music to be found there. It has a lower bar to entry than iTunes or Spotify, giving up and comers an opportunity to make their stuff available for streaming and download. They've also recently added "fan accounts" as a way to build community on the platform. Signing up gives listeners a chance to follow artists and other fans to keep up with what's going on and share information. They also have an app, which lets you listen to anything you've bought on all your devices and discover new music through a customized feed. That low bar to entry does mean that you have to wade through a lot of lo-fi, derivative and frankly amateur stuff to find the gems, but they are there to be found.

Last year, I touted the quirky pleasures of Historian and the rock classicism of Journalism - yes I did make a crack about underused graduate degrees - and I still return to both of them. The latter's latest is not on Bandcamp, but easy to track down on Soundcloud, another bottomless well of sounds. Isadora's EP - a Top 20 record from 2013 - is still available to download for $7 along with their stunning new track, Come On Back. [Correction: Journalism's 1324 EP Recently popped up on Bandcamp]

Finding the good music on Bandcamp isn't always easy. Fortunately, there are guides like Lizzie Plaugic, who picks a few of her discoveries and shares them every Thursday via Letters From Bandcamp on the CMJ site. While I've found a few things thanks to her digging (like the naive charms of Palmz) I'm going to share a couple of my own favorites that came to me via quite different methods.

Debby Schwartz is an old college friend of mine who is a music lifer. She's best known for her time in The Aquanettas, an all-female power-pop band that disbanded in 1995 after some rough treatment from the industry - an old story, except they were on an indie label. Talk about bad luck. Their 1990 album, Love With The Proper Stranger, has aged well - give it a spin on Spotify. So when I heard from Debbie that she had a new EP out, Satan You Brought Me Down, I headed immediately to Bandcamp to check it out.

Debby's contralto has grown deeper and richer in the intervening years but retains that little quaver of vulnerability that makes it so easy to connect with her singing. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and working a seam of Americana that is slightly hypnotic and emotionally resonant, she's come up with five winning songs here. Hypnotic turns to haunting on All To Become Somebody, thanks to Pat Gubler's expert work on the hurdy gurdy and a melody that seems as old as time itself. Both the EP and upcoming album were produced by former Voidoid Ivan Julian with a sensitivity to Debbie's voice and live yet dimensional sound. Flashing back to seeing The Aquanettas at Brooklyn Woodstock, I never could have imagined that Debby would be making her strongest music 30 years later. Believe it.


People are coming out of the woodwork at an increasing rate to see if AnEarful will feature their music. Eddie Dixon is one such person and I was glad he did, especially after a couple of listens to what turned out to be his fourth album. Yes, he's been around awhile - besides his own music, Dixon has lent his multi-instrumental talents to a wide variety of music, from Ralph "Soul" Jackson to rapper Serengeti.
Bump Key takes you on a tour through some fractured Americana, with echoes of Wilco, Tom Waits and Michael Chapman. More Bugs Than Birds and In The Morning When It's Late are standouts but the capper is closing track, You Are Not A War. With a groove that gets under your skin and some louche cabaret piano, this song sticks with you. Dixon's dry voice and wry sensibility anchor the project and the production is well thought out but feels organic. Dixon is on to something - climb aboard.

Now, pardon me while I check out Eddie's three other albums - on Bandcamp, of course.

Her Garden, Our Delight: Debby Schwartz

Debby Schwartz, casting her spell at Cake Shop
A couple of months ago, I wrote about Debby Schwartz's great EP, Satan, You Brought Me Down, which featured five unadorned songs in prelude to the release of her first album in 16 years. Well, now that album is here and it's a corker. A Garden Of My Own was produced by Ivan Julian, one of Richard Hell's original Voidoids and was released in late September by Twin Lakes Sounds, a small label with offices in Brooklyn and North Branford, CT. If there's any justice, this album will expand their base exponentially. 

Schwartz is now mining a deep vein of British and American folk and rock that is extremely rich and sometimes haunting. It was no surprise that she ended her recent show at Cake Shop with a cover of Led Zeppelin's The Battle Of Evermore, singing the Sandy Denny part nearly flawlessly, her voice pouring out like water. The Robert Plant part was ably sung by Karyn Kuhle, who had opened the show with her hard-rocking quartet. Reminding us that the blues were always a part of the early Stooges sound, she shredded her guitar very nicely at the intersection of Ron Asheton road and Albert King avenue. 

Karyn Kuhl, finding the note
Kuhle's sound was often over-amped and explosive, unrestrained and dynamic in an unfashionable way, slightly comic even, which had me uttering the words "Blue Cheer" to my friends at the bar during her version of Born Under A Bad Sign. One of them was too busy pounding the wood to notice. So, good fun with solid songs, a tight band, and tons of adrenalized guitar. Cake Shop's rough sound was a bit too bright, but still had plenty of punch and didn't detract much from her set.

Like Schwartz, Kuhle's been around a while, a Hoboken veteran who made noise in 80's with Gut Bank and in the 90's with Sexpod. Experience has paid off, however, and she's making the strongest music of her career just by letting it rip as if she hadn't a care in the world. 

[The following space is left blank on purpose. If I had the time or the energy to demolish Colin L. Orchestra's "performance," there is a lot I could say. Moving on...]

Finally - and I do mean finally - Debby Schwartz took the stage and instantaneously cast a spell over the room. Her right hand mesmerized me as she picked out the complex figures of Bulldozer on the thickest acoustic guitar I've ever seen. The sense of restraint, of an emotional dam ready to burst, heightened the suspense as she started each song and guided it to its conclusion. Throughout the night, the musicians on stage expanded or contracted as suited the song, but never overshadowed Schwartz.

She has a great stage presence, too, relaxed and engaging, with nothing precious about her, even though the material she is presenting is so finely wrought. She introduced Dreaming New York City in the Middle of LA by telling a brief anecdote about moving out west without a car: "Bad idea - but I got this song out of it!" And a great song it is, one of the more propulsive numbers on the album, featuring a some sharp lead guitar from James Mastro and chugging bass from Peter Stuart. When she played it live, it struck me that the genius of Dreaming New York City is that Schwartz seamlessly brings the pop-craft she honed during her years with The Aquanettas into her new and more substantive style. It's a brilliant synthesis and I would be surprised if WFMU and WFUV aren't already playing it.

In fact, there are a number of radio-ready songs on A Garden of My Own, from the sheer beauty of Hummingbird, with its detailed arrangement and slightly tricky rhythmic pattern, to the exuberance of My Hope, which has a chorus straight from the schoolyard, unleashing Schwartz's clarion upper range. "Listen to that," my wife said when I played it for her, and we did, struck dumb by the sheer talent, now fully realized by years of hard work and dedication. 

Even with all the equipment changes, which stretched the limits of Cake Shop's tiny stage (and it's sound system, which emitted an ambient buzz much of the time), the set moved smoothly from song to song, captivating the audience. When the last note was struck - too soon - it was as if everyone exhaled. But don't take my breathless word for it: get the album (or play it below). You can also listen for Debby on WFMU tomorrow (10/5) during Gaylord Fields's show or catch her live at Sidewalk Cafe on October 19th.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Scenes From A Record Fair

Scott Walker & Sunn O))) in my hand
Brilliant sunshine brought a good crowd to the Brooklyn Flea Record Fair yesterday - although not as big a crowd as to Smorgasburg next door, which was packed like a subway car during budget cuts. I knew I was in the right place when a guy asked to photograph my Mobb Deep NYC t-shirt before I'd even had a chance to look at any records. Here's a few other observations from my time among my people.

Scene 1: The Steinski Sales Pitch

There was a table on the end of one of the rows that was attracting considerable attention. They had four or five boxes of LP's on the table and the same amount on the ground and were particularly strong in the areas of funk and soul - prime DJ fodder. The records were reasonably priced at an average of $8.00, especially considering that they were all in immaculate condition and sleeved in plastic. "Most of these are from Steinski's collection," the vendor casually stated after I had been flipping for a couple of minutes. "Yeah, he has like 12,000 LP's and he's lightening his load a little, so we took about 1,000 off his hands."

For anyone who knows who Steinski is, this was the perfect Pavlovian pitch, but it still didn't cause me to totally give up all judgment and buy a Kool & The Gang live album that I can easily listen to on Spotify. And while I also appreciated that the rock section was divided into "Pre-Bowie," "Bowie" and "Post-Bowie," I pretty much have everything in there that I want. So I kept going, eventually discovering Sister Rosetta Tharp's Spirituals In Rhythm. Sister Rosetta (who, the liner notes tell us, came from "an isolated negro community") is one of those overpowering artists like Eartha Kitt, Nellie Lutcher or Edith Piaf who I prefer to consume in small doses. Somehow a CD reissue of 80 minutes of intense gospel, etc., seems to cheapen the experience. Thanks, Steinski.

Scene 2: Mexican Morning 

The people at Mexican Summer treated me right the last time I came to one of these things so I stopped by their booth for a chat. I asked when the new Peaking Lights album was coming out. "Oh they're on Domino now," I was told. "Really? After all you guys did for them?" The rep laughed. I went on to say that I wasn't too sure about their new song, which seemed to indicate some mission drift. "It's emblematic of the album," she told me as I examined the Peter Matthew Bauer album. "Definitely not going to buy it before I try it, in that case!" I told her. 

"Do you know who Peter Matthew Bauer is?" she then asked, not knowing she was talking to one of the biggest fans of The Walkmen around. "Oh, yeah," I answered, "I've really been enjoying this record, definitely the best post-Walkmen album next to Hamilton's." I then began fingering a colorful thing called Morning Of The Earth, a limited edition reissue of a 40 year-old Australian surf soundtrack. The Jonas Mekas quote on the back intrigued me and the rep told me that if I bought anything from them, it should be this. "What's it sound like?" I asked. "70's rock," she told me. Sold and indeed it does, on the sun-kissed, grandiose side of things. Jonathan Wilson, get on this.

Scene 3: Capturing Perfection

I hadn't realized that Captured Tracks, the label that has released Perfect Pussy's records, was also a record store, something I quickly learned from their selection of both used records and their own stuff. I asked what was next for Perfect Pussy and found out that a split 7" is coming out in October and that Meredith Graves is working on a solo album. Other than that, they weren't very forthcoming so I moved on.

Scene 4: Soused On An iPad

The 4AD booth was not high on my radar as I kind of don't like any of their new artists (The National, Future Islands, Merchandise - not for me) but I stopped by before lunch and quickly noticed stickers for Soused, the Scott Walker collaboration with metallic droners Sunn O))). "Ooh, when's this coming out?" I asked the rep. "Date's on the back," and indeed it was: October 21. He dramatically removed a sleek black package from the stack on the table. "We have it here - you can look at it, touch it, smell it and even listen to it on an iPad - you just can't have it."

I placed the moth-eaten pink headphones on without a moment to spare and began previewing tracks immediately. It sounded very much like a contemporary Scott Walker album, except his voice was maybe even more beautiful, especially in contrast to the huge, throbbing guitars that slash and burn through the expansive soundscapes. Most of the songs are long and I wanted to be respectful so I only heard a few minutes of each. "Wow. It's like Sunn O))) might finally have a purpose - sounds fantastic!" One of the reps agreed, adding that Scott's direction seem to have given them a rudder. I will now be counting the days when I can see, touch, smell and listen to my own copy of Soused.

I asked them what 4AD's biggest seller for the year was. "Not Scott Walker!" We all had a good laugh at that, before they reported it was Future Islands cleverly titled Singles. "Oh, so that whole Letterman thing really gave them a boost, huh?" "Yeah, and it's just a really good record." I let my silence speak for itself before bidding them adieu and going off to fight the crowds for a lobster roll, some tropical punch and the little miracles that are Gooey Butter Cake.

Somewhere along the way I managed to score CD's of James Brown's Funky People (Part 3), Stereolab's BBC sessions and a gold disc of Why Can't We Be Friends? by War, while also observing people carting off massive stacks of wax and thinking that for those of us who really love music, there's plenty of life in the business of selling it. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Double Bass, How Low Can You Go?

Casting Shadows: Coltrane and Garrison
From the 16th century to the end of the 19th century, the double bass was like the grandfather clock of music: tall, staid, making its regular noises in the back of the ensemble. Like most of the string section, it was either played with a bow (arco) or without (pizzicato), although most often the former. And when it was plucked, it was used to make a gentle sound in rhythm with the music.

The unamplified double bass has always had a volume problem, and with the rise of jazz in the 1890's, it was often replaced by the tuba, which had a better chance of cutting through the cacophony. As jazz distanced itself from its marching band roots, the string bass rose in prominence, with players developing a percussive slapping style that allowed the bassline to be heard.

As African-American musicians were essentially barred from the academy in those early years, it also must be said that teaching yourself slap bass is a lot easier than learning to use a bow. Throughout the 20th century, the music grew more complex and the players more skilled and masters like Jimmy Blanton (in the Duke Ellington orchestra) brought a new level of prominence to the instrument. Paul Chambers, one of the finest bassists of all time, essentially traversed the history of bass in jazz, starting on the tuba and then switching to the double bass.

In his formative years, Chambers actually had some training from the bassist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and became one of the first jazz bassists to regularly play arco. He went on to play with dozens of the most acclaimed leaders in jazz during the 50's and early 60's, including extensive work with both Miles Davis and John Coltrane, before his various addictions slowed his meteoric career. In 1969, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 33.

On his breakthrough album Giant Steps, Coltrane paid Chambers the ultimate tribute by naming a smoking tune after him called Mr. P.C. It became a farewell, however - Chambers was out of the band shortly after and was replaced first by Reggie Workman and then Jimmy Garrison, who played with Coltrane until the saxophonist's death from cancer in 1967.

Jimmy Garrison had a more aggressive style than Chambers, and was the perfect bassist to back up Trane as his music grew more experimental and sometimes even confrontational. In the early 60's, while the Beatles were singing Besame Mucho in Hamburg, the Stones were learning the chords to Little Red Rooster, and James Brown was in search of the funk, Garrison, Coltrane and co. were storming Europe with a live set that truly rocked.

Mr. P.C. became the centerpiece of many shows, often stretching to 25 or 30 minutes, and regularly brought the house down with blistering solos from all four members. These performances remained in the ether until 1979, when Pablo Records posthumously released one of the dates as The Paris Concert. Maybe that was just as well, because it would have been difficult for many people in the early 60's to truly comprehend the import of what was taking place.

For me as a teenager, jazz was basically chill-out music - Miles's Kind Of Blue and In A Silent Way were essential soundtracks to periods of decompression after days in high school or at a crappy summer job. Coltrane I mainly knew from the great double album reissue of his 50's work with the smooth Red Garland Trio. Then came Mr. P.C. played live in Paris, and it was like hearing the birth of punk. The key was Garrison's bad attitude during his monumental solo, which comes about seven minutes in, after McCoy Tyner's sparkling and cogent turn on the piano.

Garrison starts out with the bow, at first accompanied by Elvin Jones's splashy cymbal work, and then on his own. Running riffs up and down the neck for a couple of minutes, it's not long before he starts ripping the horsehair the wrong way across the strings, producing a ratcheting noise, and then bowing furiously, sometimes combining strings for dissonant effects. As he goes on, he digs further into the groove, like a one man Bomb Squad, creating fractured melodies and rhythms. And then at 12:48, it happens: he throws the bow on the stage.

It took me a few listens to understand what was happening and to picture it in my mind's eye. When a classical musician needs to switch from arco to pizzicato, he or she quietly slips the bow into a special holster or gently lays it on the music stand. But the fury of Garrison's inspiration, and maybe his overall fury, is such that he has no time for such niceties. It's as if he's saying, "I don't need your bow and the European classical tradition it represents to make MY music." After the bow hits the floor, there's a moment of stunned silence as he starts plucking, and then an ovation. If he had been in the American South in 1962, perhaps he would have been booed off stage or worse, but the enlightened Parisian audience applauds.


The rest of Garrison's solo lasts less than a minute, but the gauntlet had been firmly thrown. Years of oppression and pain are kicked to the curb with a bit of wood and horsehair. The way I hear it, he could not have made a bolder statement if he had snapped the delicate wood over his knee. This is our music, he seems to be saying, and we will play it the way we choose. It doesn't get more punk than that, and if the moment seems microcosmic, revolutions and even wars have been sparked with smaller tinder.

Jimmy Garrison's career was relatively quiet after Coltrane's death, but he certainly made some noise as a member of Coltrane's great quartet. Coltrane, who set so much in motion, was only 40 when he died. Today would have been his 88th birthday. 




I'd love to know who took the spectacular picture I used to illustrate this post. Let me know if you know!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Celebrate Bolan


Marc Bolan was, if anything, defined by his contradictions as both a musician and a man. A model who became a dyed-in-the-hemp hippie. One of rock's greatest creators of gleaming seven-inch slabs of three minute perfection, who often extended the songs to great length in concert with long guitar solos and Dionysian percussion jams. A generous man to his fans whose ego often destroyed close relationships when he needed them the most.

The ups and downs of the Marc Bolan story are the stuff of rock and roll legend. From Tyrannosaurus Rex and the underground, to the Top Of The Pops and T.Rexstasy, then straight down to a morass of drugs, drink, and a sometimes quixotic quest for continued chart success. Naturally, according to the strictures of storytelling, there would have to be a return to form, which Marc accomplished in 1977, partially by aligning himself with the burgeoning British punk scene. He connected with bands like The Damned and The Sex Pistols based more on his acknowledgment of the roots of rock and roll in their sound, than to any real understanding of their feelings of nihilism and disenfranchisement. Never mind - the connection and mutual respect between Bolan and the punks was genuine and good for the careers of all involved.

While Marc was certainly capable of pandering, he didn't punk up his sound on his last album, Dandy In The Underworld, which was released while he was touring England with The Damned as the opening act. He just wrote some good songs, especially the towering title track, I Love To Boogie, and The Soul Of My Suit. While the album was well-received by critics, it didn't exactly set the charts alight.

For his next single, he decided to release Celebrate Summer and while still not a punk song, there were definitely nods to his new buddies in the joyful tune. With a briskly chugging beat and a melody straight out of 1957, the track was a simple invitation to engage in the behavior promised by the title. Unless you're a complete curmudgeon, it's hard not to smile at catchphrases like "Summer is heaven in 77," and "Summer's not a bummer, it's a stunner, and it's now!" He also rhymes dance, romance and chance, in case you're wondering. As for the nods to the musical revolution of 1977, in one lyric, he bemusedly warns "Hey little punk, forget all that junk," - likely the message to Rat Scabies, et al, was "Lighten up!" - and for the guitar solo Bolan abandons his usual liquid style for a five second blast of noise. Perhaps he was borrowing from Captain Sensible or he could have been harking back to a decade prior when, as a member of John's Children, he often let loose barrages of atonality from a Gibson SG.

Celebrate Summer, a fairly simple song and no great chart hit, proved to be Bolan's last single: on September 16th, 1977, barely a month after its release, he died in a tragic car accident. The end of summer is always bittersweet and, with Bolan's death, Celebrate Summer became the perfect soundtrack for that time of the year. So take a little chance on a quick romance and dance to Celebrate Summer - in memory of Marc and summer itself - as soon as possible.



This piece originally appeared in issue two of #flatoutfucked, a black & white photocopied fanzine published by the estimable Michael James Hall, proprietor of Marketstall Records, and a fine musician himself.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Immersed In Become Ocean

Helga Davis makes everyone feel at home.

When I walked into The Greene Space on Friday night for the John Luther Adams Become Ocean listening event hosted by Q2 Music, Helga Davis greeted me like an old friend. That's partly because we are, and partly because that's just who she is and The Greene Space is practically her second home. The seats for the sold out event were arranged in pods facing in every direction and the ones in the center of the room were already filled. "Sit anywhere," Helga told me conspiratorially, "just not in front of a speaker. Or in the center." The engineers at Greene had apparently spent hours tweaking the sound so that nearly every spot would have the full benefit of the surround sound. As I gazed around, marveling at the herd instinct and wondering where I should fit myself in, she invited me to sit next to her - decision made.

This would not be my first time hearing the monumental one-movement work. While I wasn't lucky enough to attend the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall last spring, I have been listening to the recording for the last few weeks and it has already become an integral part of my musical life. While it's not quite quiescent enough to be classified as ambient music, Become Ocean does have some of the qualities I associate with Brian Eno's genre landmarks like On Land, in that you can pay full attention to it or you can just sort of let it exist in the same space as you. Also like Eno's work, it has the ability to transform your environment, a sculpture in sound that rearranges the air around you.

While I would hate to assign any utility to this masterpiece, I can say that it's made my commute transpire in an almost otherworldly fashion. I glide through the streets, stairs, elevators, subways, as if at some distance, encapsulated in Adams's meticulous construction.

Despite being scored for a large orchestra that's been divided into three semi-autonomous groups, Become Ocean is a remarkably unified piece. While I can pick out different instruments it's almost as if most of the time the orchestra is the instrument. The music seems to arise from nowhere at first, a resonance with a colorful pattern at its core. It crests and subsides, not quite reaching full volume until seven minutes in, a moment of masterful control on the part of both Adams and the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot's direction.

Nearing the 10 minute mark, that inner pattern becomes more prominent, an endless arpeggio that moves from instrument to instrument, as the volume gradually drops to near silence at 14:05. Rising up again, ever so slowly, the music seems to pick up more motive force, ascending and falling in a rhythm of slow breaths, harps and horns interacting beautifully, until there is an almost frightening surge of sound near the halfway point of our journey. Quiescence returns, but with a slight edge - even at its softest Become Ocean always moves with purpose.

There is another period of near silence at 28:00 when the process of surging and ebbing begins again, but always feeling organic, not formulaic. There's a double climax at around 35:00, loud, but not overwhelming enough to push you out of the music. The final seven minutes move you toward the end of the work with calm assurance. When it does end, you'll wish it hadn't and you'll wonder where 42 minutes went.

Become Ocean is essentially what used to be called a tone poem: a work of a certain length, often with a programmatic aspect, that does not follow symphonic form. While some may associate it with minimalism - or even romanticism, with its focus on the sublime - I get no sense of musical ideology while listening. The music is just is there, perfect, discrete and inevitable. There is, however, an ideology of a different sort behind the composer's intent. The quote from Adams at the top of the press release states: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and the sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean."

As you can imagine from that statement, and the conceptual and compositional rigor of Become Ocean, John Luther Adams is a serious man. He even looks serious, lean and ascetic, with close-cropped hair. Fortunately, during two short interviews with Helga Davis before and after listening to Become Ocean, he also proved to have an easy laugh and a twinkle in his eye. "It's a global warming piece," he stated firmly before going on to say that he wanted it both ways, hoping that someone with absolutely no idea of his intent would find their way into the music and get something out of it. Quite remarkably, he also told us that "not a note changed" between the world premiere in Seattle, the Carnegie concert, and the studio. Overall, the process of writing Become Ocean had less revision than any of his other works, which seems to fit with the way I experienced it.

He also described his deep commitment to recordings, indicating that since you can't sit in the middle of the orchestra at Carnegie Hall, hearing the recording in surround sound, as we were about to do, was the ideal way to listen. It was certainly a remarkable and immersive experience, with all the work of the WNYC engineers paying off. While many people closed their eyes for periods during the playback (including Adams himself, sitting amongst us), only one or two people seemed to actually fall asleep. Those qualities of forward motion and almost narrative movement make Become Ocean anything but soporific - it's actually rather thrilling.

When it was over, Helga asked members of the audience for one word to describe the music. We heard "Monumental!" "Surrender," "Waves," "Leviathan," and a few more before she posed the same question to Adams. "Inexorable," was his answer, and he was exactly right. With that response, and based on my observation of Adams during the listening session, I almost get a sense of Become Ocean existing somewhat apart from him, as if he wasn't quite sure where it came from. During the interview beforehand, Helga mentioned that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean. "The piece won the prize," he interjected, somewhat pointedly. Just so - and it takes its place as one of the finest and most accessible works to receive that accolade. Cantaloupe Music will release the specially priced CD/DVD package on September 30th. You really should hear it.